SAN JOSE -- California's attorney general has concluded that Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen did not break the law when he gave his top deputies extra paid time off -- a rare piece of good news for the DA in a case that tainted his reputation.

The state launched the investigation in May at the request of County Executive Jeff Smith and Rosen, who was accused by union lawyers of committing a serious civil violation when he awarded his lead attorneys the time off to make up for a 5 percent bonus they lost as part of countywide cutbacks.

"Following a review of that request, and a determination that the acts alleged were not criminal in nature, this Office undertook an administrative investigation into the issues," stated the Aug. 1 letter signed by Alicia M.B. Fowler, senior assistant attorney general under Kamala Harris. "Based on all the information that the County provided to us, including extensive documentation and in-person interviews, we have concluded that there has been no violation of law."

Rosen said Monday he was "appreciative of the Attorney General's office for their hard work."

"This is best and most appropriately handled through contract negotiations, which is where this issue always should have been dealt with," he said.

For his part, Smith said he was not surprised and was actually relieved that no criminal wrongdoing was found. Still, he added, "that doesn't necessarily mean it was a great idea" to offer the perk.

"It has never happened before that a department has decided to find a way around the board's intent regarding employee compensation," he said. "Doing this was basically a way of sabotaging the intent of the contract. The fact that it wasn't illegal is important but doesn't mean we want to see it happen again."

Rosen's decision to give extra time off in the form of paid administrative leave created a big rift in the office between management and the attorneys' union since it preserved vacation time that might otherwise have been used, giving the affected prosecutors the option to eventually sell it back to the county for cash.

In a statement issued Monday, the president of the Government Attorneys Association said he accepted the ruling but was still critical of the perks.

"Although DA Rosen's end run around our contract was not authorized by the county, we respect the Attorney General's decision that his actions were not criminal, but they were also not transparent," wrote Max Zarzana. "We hope that as we move forward Mr. Rosen's future actions will demonstrate the transparency to which he claims to be committed."

Rosen defended the move after it surfaced this past spring, saying the supervising attorneys, including the homicide chief and head of the gang unit, are on call 24 hours a day and are essential to the office's operation and to public safety.

"My motivation was based on my deep concern that they receive just compensation for their work," Rosen said. "My judgment was soundly based on the MOA (Memorandum of Agreement), the contract and long-standing practices going back 30 years."

The benefit was estimated to be worth about $280,000. In June, the bonus was restored anyway after nearly two years of savings, which Rosen said "greatly alleviated" the issue.

County officials cried foul at Rosen's arrangement, saying it circumvented a union-negotiated pay cut aimed at saving taxpayer dollars in tight fiscal times. In a strongly worded June letter, attorneys for the county also demanded that the benefiting prosecutors pay back the perk or risk their own investigation.

Smith said the county is working with the union, "going through who we think needs to return how much" and expects to submit the proposal in the next week or so. He predicted that the county will be successful in recouping the benefits.

Besides the circumventing claim, the county also found itself under fire from other county unions demanding equivalent perks, with the potential of millions of dollars in additional costs to taxpayers.

Smith said Rosen's actions didn't set a precedent for other departments to seek out similar treatment because it was an isolated incident and the first of its kind, which they have taken steps to correct.

"What it points out is that sometimes people either misunderstand or misinterpret policy procedure," he said. "This is a warning for all of us to be more specific in the way we write things down."

Contact Robert Salonga at 408-920-5002. Follow him at Twitter.com/robertsalonga. Contact Eric Kurhi at 408-920-5852. Follow him at Twitter.com/erickurhi.