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California’s D.A. Association Misspent $3 million. Environmental Groups Want it Repaid

A coalition of environmental groups urges the legislature to force the repayment and dissociate from the CDAA.

Activists in Los Angeles protest the Dakota Access Pipeline, 2016.Photo by Ronen Tivony/Getty Images

In order to fund prosecutions against major environmental polluters, California has for years sent public money to the California District Attorneys Association, a private lobbying group made up of many of the state’s major prosecutors. The CDAA was supposed to use that money—about $2.9 million—to support litigation against entities that pollute or otherwise damage the state’s natural environment.

Instead, according to an audit obtained last month by the San Francisco Chronicle, the CDAA spent that money on training its own employees and to lobby elected officials against reforms of the state’s criminal legal system.

A coalition of environmental groups will urge senate president Toni Atkins and assembly speaker Anthony Rendon to force CDAA to repay the misspent funds. In a letter obtained by The Appeal and dated February 24, the groups also demand that the legislature terminate any further agreements the state has with CDAA regarding environmental litigation and allow the state to contract with different groups for such work. The coalition of 10 groups includes the California Coastkeeper Alliance, the Coalition for Clean Air, the Environmental Working Group, the California League of Conservation Voters, and Sierra Club California.

“As representatives of organizations dedicated to the protection of our environment, we are devastated by this dereliction of CDAA’s public duties,” the letter states. “We call on our government to not only demand redress for what is, for all intents and purposes, a theft of funds from the people of California, but to take all necessary steps to terminate the partnership between CDAA, CalEPA, and the legislature … We cannot overstate the importance of quick and decisive action to respond to CDAA’s malfeasance.”

The CDAA’s president and El Dorado County DA Vern Pierson blamed the issue on former employees and accountants who did not flag the spending issues when they should have. He said the agency contracted an outside auditor at the advice of the California Attorney General’s Office and immediately committed to rectifying any wrongdoing.

“I mean, I was shocked when I heard about it,” Pierson said in reference to the misspent funds. “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.”

“The CDAA has enjoyed a very cushy and close relationship with the California legislature for decades,” Anne Irwin, who heads the reform group Smart Justice California, told The Appeal last week, adding that the group was “able to influence a tremendous amount of legislation over the decades and able to shape criminalization in California.”

But a new wave of prosecutors who lean to the left, compared to their predecessors at least, has begun to chip away at the CDAA’s power. In January, San Joaquin County DA Tori Salazar, a Republican, quit the group and said the organization was fighting to maintain “tough-on-crime” policies she no longer supports. And, last week, newly elected Los Angeles County DA George Gascón quit the group as well.

Gascón’s exit was perhaps less of a surprise: last year, he ran as a progressive against incumbent DA Jackie Lacey. And, since taking office, Gascón has fought bitterly with local police unions, conservative politicians, the CDAA, and even his own assistant prosecutors. After the agency representing Gascón’s deputies—the Los Angeles Association of Deputy District Attorneys (ADDA)—sued Gascón in December to prevent him from rolling back harsh sentencing rules, the CDAA filed an amicus brief supporting the ADDA’s fight against its own boss.

So, last week, Gascón said Los Angeles County would no longer support the group, robbing it of its largest financial and organizational backer. In his letter, Gascón also blasted the agency for misspending the environmental prosecution funds.

“The fact that CDAA diverted millions of dollars from environmental prosecutions to lobby against criminal justice reform is repugnant and emblematic of the organization’s increasingly fringe values,” Gascón wrote.

Gascón, Salazar, San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin, and Contra Costa County DA Diana Becton are members of a recently formed progressive advocacy organization called the Prosecutors’ Alliance of California. Speaking to The Appeal, the group’s executive director, Cristine Soto DeBerry, said that it was “incumbent on the legislature” and state to hold the CDAA accountable for the misspent money.

In addition to auditing CDAA and demanding the group pay back the money it misspent, DeBerry said the state should reconsider all of the  money it sends the CDAA. “We should be asking, ‘Should an inherently political organization such as theirs be recipients of public funds?’” she said.