11:01 PM PST on Wednesday, February 24, 2010

By RICHARD K. DE ATLEY
The Press-Enterprise

Paul Zellerbach, a one-time Riverside County prosecutor who has taken an unpaid leave of absence as a Superior Court judge, announced Wednesday he will run for Riverside County district attorney against incumbent Rod Pacheco in November.

“I think it is time for a change. The citizens of Riverside County deserve better from a district attorney. They are not getting what they are paying for,” Zellerbach, 56, said.

He filed his initial paperwork at the Riverside County registrar’s office.

In a campaign statement, Zellerbach said Pacheco had put the prosecutor’s office “in a state of crisis … he is more interested in political grandstanding than with the effective administration of justice.”

He said scores of veteran prosecutors have left the office, while courts are clogged because of over-filed criminal cases.

Pacheco’s campaign is expected to point to the incumbent’s prosecution of gangs including court injunctions and multi-agency raids, along with high-profile political corruption investigations in San Jacinto and Lake Elsinore.

Pacheco’s refusal to plea-bargain serious and violent cases after preliminary hearing cannot be compromised, even if court calendars are full, he has said.

Challenging Race

The race is expected to be one of the toughest in this year’s county election. Pacheco’s campaign manager on Wednesday accused Zellerbach of being unethical and lying. Pacheco himself did not return a phone call seeking comment.

“I supervised Rod for several years. I hope for the best and expect the worst,” Zellerbach said of the anticipated political fight.

Pacheco is a veteran prosecutor who also was elected three times to the state Assembly before he ran unopposed for his first term as district attorney in 2006. He ended 2009 with $465,235 campaign cash on hand.

The two men have been sparring for months.

In May, Zellerbach removed himself from an embezzlement case involving financial planner Holly Gunnette, who faces charges she swindled two elderly clients out of an estimated $1.2 million .Gunnette had been Pacheco’s 1996 state Assembly campaign manager. She was fired two months into that job.

Her defense attorney said Pacheco was prosecuting her in 2009 because he believed she had stolen $3,000 from his campaign funds in 1996. Zellerbach ordered Pacheco to produce documents from that campaign.

Prosecutor Bill Mitchell responded with a call for Zellerbach to remove himself from the case. The motion said the judge’s antipathy toward Pacheco and political ambition to be district attorney rendered him unable to be impartial.

Zellerbach removed himself from the case, but said he did so to prevent further delays and denied what he called “every spurious allegation” in the motion. The attorney general took over prosecution of the case.

Conviction Rates

Zellerbach said Superior Court records from the past two years show that the conviction rate is less than 45 percent for all charges taken to trial by Pacheco’s office. He said the number included felony and misdemeanor cases.

Pacheco’s campaign manager Brian Floyd called Zellerbach’s figures “a complete lie.”

“The (California) attorney general is the keeper of the record and Riverside County has an over 90 percent conviction rate,” Floyd said in a phone interview.

He said the 2007 rate was 93.2 percent and the last available year, 2008, showed a conviction rate of 94 percent.

The attorney general’s office counts the results of all charged cases, including those that end with a plea bargain before trial.

Zellerbach’s figures are the results of verdicts on each count in cases that went to trial. The cases can include mixed verdicts, which means they could be guilty, not guilty, hung or dismissed, for example.

“That’s a horrendous conviction rate…It’s a very telling fact,” Zellerbach said.

“Citizens of this community who are sitting as trial jurors are telling the DA’s office, ‘you’re overcharging, you are not filing the appropriate charges.’ ”

Floyd countered: “It’s very shocking that Paul Zellerbach would open his campaign misleading the public on this information. It demonstrates how unethical he is.”

Floyd said Zellerbach would make more plea bargains.

“We are the third safest county in the state. If you are running against that success, you are running to undo those policies.”

Judge Admonished

Zellerbach, of Riverside, served 22 years in the Riverside County district attorney’s office and was involved in 150 trials, including 50 murder trials, five of them death penalty cases. He was elected judge in 2000.

Zellerbach received in 2006 a public admonition from the Commission on Judicial Performance for leaving a trial unattended.

In October 2004 he left to go to an Angels playoff game during jury deliberations in a double murder trial. He did not make arrangements to have another judge take a verdict if the jury came in.

It did. The jury had to wait until the next day to deliver its verdict.

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