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In San Diego, a Fierce Battle for District Attorney's Office Gets Personal

October 27, 2002|Beth Silver | Special to the Times

SAN DIEGO — Among the numerous plaques that hang on the office walls of San Diego County Dist. Atty. Paul Pfingst are a series of engraved tributes and awards for leadership in cultural diversity.

He doesn't say anything as he points to the honors from the African American Bar Assn. and the La Raza Lawyers Assn. as he slowly makes his way around his desk on the top floor of the Hall of Justice. He wants them to speak for themselves.

Pfingst, in fact, would rather not have to defend himself at all against allegations that he made anti-Semitic slurs as a young deputy prosecutor in the mid-1980s. His opponent, Superior Court Judge Bonnie Dumanis, who is Jewish, says she would rather not have to address it either.

But in what has shaped up as the most brutal political battle for the district attorney's office this county has ever seen, observers say, it seems the only thing everyone else can talk about.

It is a race that most outside the law-and-order crowd would usually ignore. Not this year. The character attacks have become fodder for talk radio, local magazine covers and e-mail chat. Political observers say the attention on this campaign in this county rivals the governor's race.

While Pfingst was fending off accusations that he called a Jewish colleague a "Jew bastard" and referred to his car with a similar slur 17 years ago, Dumanis had to admit on the campaign trail that she had attempted suicide 16 years ago.

Both campaigns have swathed themselves in the same blanket denial; they insist they haven't participated in the negative barbs and that the fault lies with the opposing camp.

"I've been here 20 years, and I've never seen these kinds of issues surface before," said Steve Erie, a political science professor at UC San Diego. "D.A. races are usually staid affairs."

The contest opened about a year ago when Pfingst's deputy district attorneys took a vote of no confidence in their boss. Two-thirds of the 300 deputies voted for a proclamation saying he had a "lack of ethics, integrity and honesty."

The deputy prosecutors' action capped a second term in office filled with controversy. In 2000, the head of his fraud division resigned after being investigated for running a personal real estate business out of the office.

The state attorney general's office took over the investigation and served a search warrant on Pfingst's office. The chief deputy eventually pleaded guilty to felony grand theft for using legal assistants and secretaries in the office to help with his business.

Also during his last term, two deputy prosecutors sued the county in separate lawsuits for gender discrimination when they were transferred after returning from pregnancies. Together, they won $1.5 million. Pfingst defends himself by saying he wasn't named in the lawsuit. But he was the head of the office at the time.

A field of primary challengers stepped in. Dumanis, 50, a former prosecutor and now a judge, emerged with 23% of the vote in the primary and the endorsement of the deputy prosecutors. Pfingst, 50, took 41% in the primary.

Then, in depositions for a discrimination lawsuit that deputy prosecutor Richard Sachs filed against the county, another deputy prosecutor said he recalled Pfingst making the Jewish jokes.

In sworn testimony, James E. Atkins said he recalled Pfingst making anti-Semitic remarks about Sachs among a group of deputy prosecutors who often did so during their after-work happy hour visits. Sachs says he was not promoted because of a medical condition and because Pfingst didn't think his appearance fit that of a top prosecutor.

Other deputy prosecutors -- including deputy prosecutor of the year Bonnie Howard-Regan -- have come forward in recent weeks to corroborate parts of Atkins' testimony, some in their own depositions.

Pfingst says he was probably at the bar where the jokes were made about Sachs. But he denies making any anti-Semitic comments. He was raised Catholic but his grandfather was Jewish, as are some of his "closest personal friends," including his daughter's godmother, he said.

"There are no words to defend it. That's why it's so effective," Pfingst said. "I know they lied under oath."

Pfingst said he is sure Dumanis is behind the accusation. Atkins is one of her supporters and has contributed to her campaign, as has Sachs.

But Dumanis says there's no way she could have been involved in the scheduling of Sachs' depositions. He filed the case two years ago, before she was in the race. Dumanis said she didn't know about the anti-Semitic allegations until Atkins called her after he testified.

Soon after the depositions became public, Pfingst told a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune that he ran into two boys, about age 11 or 12, who said they recognized him. Pfingst was walking in Encinitas on his way to a fund-raiser when he said the boys said, "You're famous, aren't you? You're Pfingst. You hate Jews." And then Pfingst said they yelled after him, "Jew hater! Jew hater!"

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