SAN FRANCISCO -- The fight for a Northern California district attorney's professional life got under way Monday in a tiny courtroom in the downtown San Francisco highrise that serves as headquarters for the State Bar, the agency that licenses and disciplines California's 176,000 lawyers.
State Bar prosecutors have charged Del Norte County District Attorney Jon Alexander with seven charges of corruption and other alleged ethical transgressions. He faces disbarment. State Bar officials believe he is the first sitting district attorney to face such a disciplinary trial.
Alexander is charged with making a $14,000 loan to a probation officer preparing probation reports for two of his clients when he was a public defender, receiving a $6,000 loan from a defense attorney, then dismissing charges against the attorney's client, and improperly discussing a case with a drug defendant without her lawyer present.
Alexander claims he is a victim of small-town politics and his many political enemies made during the contentious and close election for district attorney in 2010, when he defeated the incumbent and another candidate by 93 votes in a run-off after spending $100,000 to his opponents' $20,000 for a job that pays $84,000 annually.
"They have all been contentious," Crescent City defense attorney Leroy Davies testified from the witness stand Monday when asked about the last district attorney's election. "But yes, this was a contentious election."
Davies was the first of several witnesses State Bar prosecutors plan to call over the next two weeks of trial. Two others witnesses testified Monday, including a tribal judge called by Alexander's lawyers who said she believes the punishment of disbarment to be too harsh even if all the charges are proved.
A third witness, defense attorney Darren McElfresh, also testified about his interactions with Alexander.
McElfresh testified that Alexander was a "hard worker" who put in long hours in the district attorney's office.
McElfresh said the loans were the subject of ongoing "scuttlebutt" discussions at the Del Norte County Courthouse in Crescent City.
He said the loan to the probation officer "had the appearance of impropriety."
Alexander is a recovering methamphetamine addict who lost his Orange County criminal defense practice when he was briefly suspended from practicing law for improperly keeping clients' fees.
His story of recovery and second chances appealed to voters in the small, rural area known for its tall trees, salmon fishing and methamphetamine problems.
Davies testified Monday that Alexander led Alcoholics Anonymous meetings at the county's Juvenile Hall while in private practice and then as district attorney.
Davies said that he believed Alexander's participation was inappropriate because many of the AA participants are defendants being prosecuted by the district attorney and that "teens tend to talk a lot about their problems."
Alexander muttered "that's not true" when Davies said he was sure that Alexander conducted the meetings after his district attorney election.
In fact, Alexander argues that State Bar prosecutors are trying to disbar him because of his addiction and past drug abuse.
He filed a lawsuit last week in San Francisco Superior Court, accusing the State Bar of inflecting emotional distress and violating his civil rights as a recovering addict. He is seeking a halt to the prosecution and undisclosed damages. A San Francisco judge has scheduled an Oct. 24 hearing. Alexander's trial is expected to continue until at least then.
Alexander says he's been clean and sober for nine years, but that State Bar prosecutors are still pursuing him for his past transgressions.
Del Norte County is among California's smallest counties, nestled along the Pacific and the last stop before crossing into Oregon.
It's home to Redwood National Park, the harbor town of Crescent City and 29,000 residents, including 3,000 inmates of California's most-secure maximum security prison, Pelican Bay State Prison.
The area has long been economically depressed and isolated, routinely posting double digit unemployment rates. It's the also the place where Alexander found refuge after losing his lucrative Orange County criminal defense practice and cleaning up after a stint in jail and rehab.
Alexander's other defense is that the Del Norte County legal community is a small one. Alexander argues that the loans made to and by him involved close personal friends.
On Monday, Farzan attempted to show the State Bar Judge Lucy Armendariz deciding the case how intertwined the Del Norte legal community is.
Prompted by Alexander's attorney Farschad Farzan, Davies conceded loaning a Del Norte County prosecutor enough money to buy drinks at the Elks Club and purchasing ammo clips from a bailiff.
Farzan also tried to engage Davies in a discussion about his own attempts to win election as district attorney and judge, but the judge decided those questions weren't relevant to Alexander's case.
Finally, the State Bar says Alexander should be disciplined for discussing a pending drug case with the defendant without her lawyer present.
Alexander argues that the defendant "barged" into his office late on a Friday, demanding to talk about her case. Alexander said the defendant's lawyer had previously authorized him to speak to her alone and that the conversation lasted "two or three minutes" and focused on the defendant's participation in a drug diversion program in place of a criminal prosecution.
Alexander says he later learned that the defendant was wearing a "wire" when the conversation occurred and urged the State Bar to obtain the recording to support his version of events. She refused to turn over a copy to Alexander. She gave the original to Davies, who was representing her boyfriend in the same drug case.
Davies provided a copy of the recording with the court, but it wasn't played.