Under Criminal Investigation, California D.A. Resigns
In early June, District Attorney Mark Peterson was busy planning for his reelection campaign in Contra Costa County, California. But life comes at you fast, especially when you’ve admitted to embezzling $66,000 in campaign funds for hotel rooms, movie tickets, jewelry, and other frivolities. Peterson got an unusual taste of his own medicine when he was detained June 9th in his own county by the state’s Attorney General, who launched a criminal investigation into his five-year slush fund spree.
Peterson had been under fire before his detention, but it didn’t seem to shake his confidence in the upcoming election. In May, a civil grand jury recommended he be removed from office, and the county’s district attorney association, comprised of line prosecutors in Peterson’s office, voted “no confidence” in their boss. In spite of the public shaming, in April, Peterson stated that he planned to run for reelection.
It took being detained by law enforcement agents and having his iPhone and calendar seized to change his mind. Five days later Peterson finally resigned and pleaded no contest to a felony perjury charge. He’ll serve three years of informal probation and perform 250 hours of community service — a punishment much less harsh than those regularly sought by his office for lesser crimes.
While Peterson’s slush fund scandal and detention rightly incited a flurry of local media coverage, a greater impropriety has gone largely unnoticed. Throughout his 10-year tenure as D.A., Peterson’s policy choices have shown him to be out of touch with the electorate when it comes to criminal justice. He consistently failed to support and even campaigned against multiple ballot initiatives that his community favored, such as Proposition 47, which passed in 2014. In an op-ed penned for the East Bay Times, Peterson railed against the popular initiative, which reduced certain nonviolent felony charges to misdemeanors, arguing that “the people who are in prison are the ones who should be there.” Unmoved by his fearmongering, 66.1 percent of his constituency supported the successful initiative — reflecting a broader support for criminal justice reform in the county that Peterson continues to push back against.
His disregard for the county’s stance on reform wasn’t limited to Proposition 47. In 2012, Peterson opposed Proposition 36, which revised the state’s three strikes law in an attempt to decrease its bloated prison population. Meanwhile, over 70 percent of Contra Costa voters supported its passage. Last year, Peterson again opted to ignore the electorate when he opposed Proposition 57, which increased parole opportunities for nonviolent felons, while nearly 70 percent of county voters favored it. State-wide, California disagreed with Peterson on all of these successful ballot initiatives.
The staunch law-and-order candidate also repeatedly denied the existence of systemic racism within Contra Costa’s criminal justice system. At a Black Lives Matter rally in December 2014, a group of Bay Area public defenders called out the local system for disproportionately incarcerating people of color. Robin Lipetzky, a Contra Costa County public defender, spoke of the racial disparities she saw “every day in judicial decisions, and in District Attorney filing decisions.” Peterson went on the defensive, calling the accusations“unfair, unsubstantiated, and misleading” in a letter and using the phrase “All Lives Matter” three times throughout his retort.
“The Public Defender suggested that people of color are over-represented in our jails,” wrote Peterson. “The fact is the jails are populated disproportionately by those who commit the most serious crimes. Unfortunately, it’s a sad fact that these crimes are perpetrated disproportionately by poor people of color.”
Peterson doubled down on his denial of systemic racism in Contra Costa again in January 2015, defending his rebuttal to Lipetzky in an op-ed. In the editorial, he added that he would “welcome an independent and objective study of race in our criminal justice system.” In the absence of that local study, Peterson could easily turn to the vast number of national studies on racial disparities in the criminal justice system, which illustrate the myriad reasonsblack and brown people are overrepresented — many of which are empirically tied to racial bias, whether implicit or intentional.
Before Peterson was elected as D.A. in 2010, he served as a city councilman and mayor of Concord, the largest city in Contra Costa County. During that time, between 2001 and 2010, the racial disparity between marijuana arrests of black and white citizens in the county leaped to 150 percent. A 2015 study found that although one in ten county residents are black, more than a quarter of all criminal cases in the county involve black defendants. There was plenty of data to prove him wrong; Peterson just ignored it.
Before his detention and the A.G.’s criminal investigation, Peterson suffered few repercussions for his actions. He was fined $45,000 by California’s Fair Political Practices Commission following the embezzlement scandal, but remained a member of the state bar association. The lack of consequences for an offense of such gravity stood in stark contrast to the convictions doled out to Contra Costa residents by his office for far more minor crimes.
Aron DeFerrari, president of the Contra Costa District Attorneys Association, told the East Bay Times that the line prosecutors’ vote of no confidence “is for the defendants who wonder why one standard applies to the district attorney and another standard applies to them.”
While Peterson’s cocksure bid for reelection is now off the table and he’s out of office, voters in Contra Costa now have a chance to challenge the candidates opting to replace Peterson. There are currently two candidates: Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Patrick Vanier, who formerly worked in Contra Costa as a prosecutor, and Contra Costa-based prosecutor Paul Graves, who until Peterson’s resignation was running against his boss. After ten years of being “served” by a D.A. who consistently failed to represent the electorate, the next local election is an opportunity to bring in a district attorney who actually reflects the constituency.