California’s largest and most influential lobbying organization for prosecutors—the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA)—is currently embroiled in a scandal after a self-commissioned audit released in January found that the organization spent public funds meant for environmental prosecutions on lobbying state officials instead.
Today, in a letter obtained by The Appeal, the CDAA’s Chief Executive Officer, Gregory Totten, alerted California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office that the agency may have also improperly spent even more state funds. Totten asked the attorney general to investigate the CDAA staff members involved in the transactions.
“I write on behalf of the Board of Directors for the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA) to formally request an investigation by your office into the unauthorized transfer and expenditure of asset forfeiture and high-tech funds by former staff members at the Association,” Totten wrote.
The letter states that, since 1994, the CDAA has received a portion of the money state law enforcement agents seized using civil asset forfeiture, a deeply controversial practice by which police and prosecutors can take a person’s property if they are suspected of using it to commit a crime. According to the letter, that money is supposed to be used to fund a training program on how to conduct asset forfeitures properly and ethically.
Instead, Totten wrote, CDAA officials funneled $1.2 million of that money to the organization’s general fund instead. Of that money, $1.1 million was transferred between 2015 and 2020, before Totten himself became CEO. However, between 2016 and 2020, the CDAA deposited forfeited money directly into its general fund account and not into a separate ledger.
Additionally, Totten wrote that the CDAA receives funding for “high-tech training” from the Marion County District Attorney’s Office, but that $406,984 of that money also appears to have been put directly into the group’s general fund.
“It is very troubling that former staff members appear to have prepared and submitted reports to the Association’s independent, annual auditor and the Board of Directors that did not disclose these accounting practices,” Totten wrote. “The Board and I ordered these practices to immediately cease and implemented appropriate safeguards to prevent any similar future actions. No one is more angry and disappointed than the Board and myself that these actions occurred. A satisfactory resolution is our highest priority, and we are committed to restoring these funds.”
Spokespeople for CDAA did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In an earlier conversation with The Appeal, current CDAA president and El Dorado County DA Vern Pierson said that “nobody is more upset than we are to have found out that people who worked for us accounted for money in a way they should not have.”
Totten’s letter comes as the CDAA’s reputation and power over the California legislature are starting to wane. The organization has long been one of the loudest voices in Sacramento lobbying for “tough-on-crime” laws and has in the past opposed marijuana legalization and the lessening of some criminal sentences, for example. But in 2020 and 2021 two prosecutors—San Joaquin County District Attorney Tori Salazar and Los Angeles County DA George Gascón—quit the group and said they believe the organization is standing in the way of justice reform. The organization’s current secretary-treasurer, Sacramento County DA Anne Marie Schubert, has been rumored to be mulling a run for state attorney general.
Last year, Gascôn, Salazar, San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin, and Contra Costa County DA Diana Becton created their own organization, called the Prosecutors’ Alliance of California, to lobby in favor of criminal-legal system reform. (The CDAA recently signed an amicus brief supporting a lawsuit against Gascón’s proposed justice reforms in Los Angeles County.)
When Gascón announced that he would be leaving the CDAA, he cited the group’s financial troubles as one reason for his opposition to their operations. In January, the San Francisco Chronicle obtained a 2020 audit of its own finances that the CDAA commissioned. That audit stated that roughly $3 million in public money had instead been spent on lobbying and other expenses. The state currently sends money to the CDAA so the organization can help local DAs, especially in rural areas, prosecute entities who commit environmental crimes. Last month, 10 environmental groups, including the Environmental Working Group and Sierra Club California, urged the state legislature to demand repayment, independently audit the CDAA, and stop sending the group public funds.
On March 4, Acting Chief Assistant Attorney General Edward Ochoa told the CDAA that his office would not send any more environmental settlement funds to the agency until the CDAA shows the state it has changed its ways.
“These actions by CDAA, an organization composed of prosecutors, and which has served a critical role in providing training to the law-enforcement community, only serve to undermine the public’s trust in our governmental officials and institutions,” Ochoa wrote, according to a copy of the letter he sent obtained by The Appeal.
And, in a third letter obtained today, a group of 25 civil rights and justice advocacy organizations—including the American Civil Liberties Union and San Francisco Public Defender’s Office—asked the state legislature to independently audit CDAA’s finances and force the agency to repay any money it may have wrongly used.
“The pursuit of justice cannot be selective,” the groups wrote. “When a group like CDAA is tasked with enforcing the law and does not hold itself to the standards it espouses, people lose trust in the system. To repair this trust, CDAA must be held accountable and its operations must be examined.”