10:49 PM PST on Saturday, January 1, 2011
By RICHARD K. DE ATLEY
On Monday, six tumultuous months after he was elected Riverside County’s top prosecutor, Paul Zellerbach will be sworn in, walk from the downtown Historic Courthouse to the nearby district attorney’s office, and go to work.
Zellerbach will become the first Riverside County district attorney in more than a century to take office by defeating an incumbent. He beat one-term DA Rod Pacheco in an upset win June 8.
The office’s tight budget and an election promise to end a controversial division created by Pacheco will mean dismissing about a dozen employees on his first day, Zellerbach said.
He also said he will bring at least six veteran former prosecutors back into the office. He did not disclose their assignments, but it seemed likely they will fill at least some vacated upper management roles.
Pacheco and Zellerbach have not talked to each other since the election. Pacheco canceled his half of an arranged meeting, and it was never rescheduled. Zellerbach was not welcome inside the domed district attorney building on Orange Street.
His arrival Monday at the 10th-floor office will be his first look at his new digs.
When he walks in, he won’t see the Pacheco-endorsed golden-letter phrase over the office entrance that Zellerbach criticized during the campaign as overbearing: “Let Justice Be Done Though The Heavens May Fall.”
Zellerbach said he would have it removed, but it already was gone Thursday morning, arriving employees said.
Zellerbach estimated he has met with about 500 of the office’s approximately 800 employees during lunch hours, before and after work, and sometimes away from downtown, to avoid being seen.
Pacheco’s “lack of cooperation has made it more difficult for the employees themselves to feel like they can openly help me in this transition,” Zellerbach said.
Zellerbach must immediately manage what he says is a $5 million department deficit — others have estimated it as high as $9 million — and take over an institution that has endured months of post-election clashes, cold shoulders and red-hot rhetoric.
Pacheco declined to be interviewed for this story. He has insisted his office will have a $2.1 million surplus this fiscal year. County executives disagree. Supervisor John Tavaglione said the deficit is $9 million.
Zellerbach, 57, a prosecutor for 22 years and a judge for a decade, said he plans to reorganize the office, from its leadership to its courtroom practices to its investigative unit.
“I want to get back to where the Riverside County DA’s office is again held in high stature,” Zellerbach said in an interview last week.
He talked in an assigned 4th-floor office of the County Administrative Building, where he has been since Nov. 1, using accumulated vacation time from his judgeship to conduct the transition work.
Zellerbach’s belief that the office fell from grace under Pacheco is part of the animus between the two men. It was heated during the campaign; it has been blistering since then.
Pacheco never formally acknowledged his defeat, only thanking his supporters and saying he was looking forward to entering private life.
In a recent statement, Pacheco said Zellerbach has created a “climate of terror” by openly discussing the need to dismiss employees.
Some in the office are “seeking legal counsel in order to protect themselves and their families from Mr. Zellerbach’s intended actions,” Pacheco said.
Zellerbach said last week that truth and honesty were concepts “foreign” to Pacheco.
Zellerbach also has had to deal with word-of-mouth accusations and rumors.
One is that he was going to hire Michael Flory, an Orange County prosecutor, as a political payback. Flory withdrew his brief candidacy for Pacheco’s office last spring, clearing the way for a two-man race. Flory is not coming to the office, Zellerbach said.
Another accusation said Zellerbach made a crank phone call, posing as an upset rape victim’s father, to the Southwest DA’s office in French Valley on Thanksgiving eve. A version of the story was called in to The Press-Enterprise by a former DA employee. Zellerbach said the item was circulated widely among the DA’s offices. He denies making the call.
“I was hopeful the personal attacks would have ended after the election, but they have continued up to this very time, and that’s unfortunate for everyone. I obviously have to deal with those, and it makes the transition more difficult.”
Zellerbach is unapologetic about what he sees as necessary moves to save money.
He said he will issue about 12 pink slips Monday affecting some attorneys, workers in victims’ services, clerical staff and the Pacheco-created executive division. During the campaign, Zellerbach said he would eliminate the division.
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