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The California District Attorneys Association Is Failing Californians

After years of misappropriating millions of dollars, opposing criminal justice reform, and ignoring the will of voters, the CDAA must be held to account by the governor and the attorney general.

Izzet Keribar/Getty Images

Earlier this month, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that a recent audit of the California District Attorneys Association (CDAA) revealed the organization misused nearly $3 million in funding intended for public services programs. 

Since 2007, the association had used the money—meant to help prosecutors in handling complex cases, including environmental and worker safety violations—to pad its general revenue fund, which pays for, among other things, lobbying, media, and political campaigning. 

The funding for these public service programs is usually obtained through court settlements and judgments, and these restricted funds are what sustain the programs. This practice of “borrowing” funds drained the CDAA accounts that cover these special programs and left prosecutors in Madera County without support in a fight against a company mishandling hazardous waste. It also left at least 10 other counties with pending cases without the necessary resources to tackle them. 

Though the CDAA published the audit’s findings on its website in December, the full audit, made public by the San Francisco Chronicle, suggests that the CDAA board was in no rush to correct the misappropriation. In June 2020, the group’s CEO presented the results of an internal investigation to the board, under the leadership of then-President Nancy O’Malley, the Alameda County District Attorney, showing that $2.88 million had been misappropriated. It wasn’t until August, under new leadership, that CDAA retained a financial consulting firm to perform an independent audit.

Californians can’t let this behavior stand. The attorney general’s office said it is reviewing the audit, but the office must also conduct a full investigation. Governor Gavin Newsom should request that the misappropriated funds be returned to the state so that it can serve its intended purpose of holding big corporations accountable for harming workers and the environment. The governor should also remove the CDAA as a leader of the newly announced task force fighting unemployment insurance fraud. And I am calling on my colleagues in the California legislature to ensure the integrity of our criminal legal system and hold a hearing to investigate the misconduct of these elected officials and the misappropriation of public funds.

The CDAA’s misconduct is simply more evidence that the association has no interest in promoting justice, as its mission states. Instead, it lobbies to subvert the will of the voters, attacks progressive prosecutors, keeps in place the tough-on-crime laws of the past, and, evidently, misappropriates public funds to do so. It’s past time that the state steps up and holds the group accountable for these actions.

It appears that the CDAA’s real purpose is to fight every criminal legal reform that comes to California. While it lobbies behind the scenes to water down reform legislation, the association’s public face is also one of vehement opposition to any policy with the potential to reduce California’s prison population. It opposed laws that would prevent children under 16 from being tried in adult court, protect sex workers who come forward to report crimes, overturn a draconian felony murder rule that allowed DAs to charge accomplices with murder despite no involvement in the killing, and fight racial discrimination in jury selection. 

CDAA also fights progress at the ballot box, consistently campaigning against ballot initiatives, including ones to remove harsher punishments for non-violent crimes, reform the state’s “three strikes” laws, allow earlier parole, and grant rehabilitation credits for reduced sentences. 

CDAA’s campaign to stymie any significant criminal justice reform even extends to attacking other California district attorneys. When progressive George Gascón was elected Los Angeles County District Attorney, he was immediately challenged by judges and other prosecutors, who filed a lawsuit in response to his new directives. Last week, the CDAA filed an amicus brief in the case against him and, in an open letter, cited overblown “concerns” that Gascón’s directives around bail, sentencing, and parole “subvert our system of justice.”

The CDAA fights tooth and nail against reforms that are popular among Californians and are rooted in the pursuit of justice and equity. Gascón campaigned on a progressive platform and beat incumbent Jackie Lacey, who was well-known for opposing criminal justice reform. At least three of the ballot initiatives CDAA fought against—propositions 36, 47, and 57—passed with between 59 percent and 70 percent of the vote. A Republican district attorney even left the CDAA because of its unwillingness “to find new approaches to criminal justice” demonstrated that they were “out of touch.” 

The California District Attorneys Association has proven that it is not interested in justice, does not respect California voters, and is not even up to the task of managing a public service program without corrupting the process for their own gain. It’s now up to the state to hold the CDAA and its board responsible.

Update: This commentary was updated to reflect that the audit said the CDAA funds were misused, not misappropriated. It was also updated to reflect that the CDAA published the audit’s findings in December, before the San Francisco Chronicle published the full audit. And in an email, following the publication of this commentary, the CDAA said that the two months “it took to initiate the audit was due entirely to soliciting bids to perform the audit.” 

Sydney Kamlager is a state assemblymember, representing California’s 54th district.