Since he was first elected in 2010, Contra Costa District Attorney—rather, former Contra Costa District Attorney—Mark Peterson often staked claim to “tough on crime” territory. That punitive predilection was nowhere to be seen last week when Peterson resigned from office and pled no contest to a felony perjury charge. While he came into office with a bang, Peterson finally left with a whimper. Peterson did not plan to leave his position of authority without a fight, but his resignation shows that the corruptive force of power can, sometimes, hamstring even the stubborn. In his wake, he leaves behind an office beset by questions about leadership and integrity.
Trouble began, in a public way, late last year when the California Fair Political Practices Commission levied a $45,000 fine against Peterson for misusing over $66,000 worth of campaign contributions between 2011 and 2015. Instead of stepping aside and clearing the way for a new leader to take over, Peterson announced “plans to seek re-election” in 2018. According to the East Bay Times, “[p]rosecutors working for him [we]re understandably angry, exasperated and embarrassed.” Last month, the pressure on Peterson intensified; a grand jury approved of criminal charges, prompting more leaders in the community to call for his resignation.
The breaking point was finally reached last week, when Peterson resigned in disgrace in response to the California Attorney General’s filing of 13 felony charges against him. Unsurprisingly, “[s]tate law requires that campaign funds be used for a political, legislative or governmental purpose.” However, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that “Peterson made approximately 600 personal expenditures from his campaign account, including transferring money into his personal bank account.” The AG ultimately struck a deal with the DA. In exchange for his no contest plea to one count of perjury, the AG dropped the 12 other charges. The sentence? 250 hours of community service and three years of probation during which he cannot run for public office. (The conviction could also result in Peterson losing his license to practice law. That outcome is a no-brainer at this point.)
If that sounds like a pretty sweet deal, it is. Stanford law professor Robert Weisberg told the local paper that Peterson’s sentence was lenient: “[It] was absolutely low-end. In federal perjury cases, you can go to prison for several years.” Context matters when one thinks about punishment, and the context here underscores the degree of leniency Peterson received. The DA was earning approximately a quarter-of-a-million dollars per year, not even counting his lavish six-figure benefits package. A man who has cleared well over a $1M from local taxpayers broke crystal clear laws and ethical rules that prohibited him from using campaign funds the way he did. As Chronicle columnist Otis Taylor, Jr. put it: “I’d like to meet the person who believes Peterson got the same treatment as the most vulnerable of Contra Costa County’s citizens, the people he swore to serve.”
It should not surprise regular readers that prosecutors look after their own. While the AG deserves some credit for bringing these charges to stamp out political corruption, the public can be forgiven for thinking that Peterson is benefiting from a severe double standard. If Peterson’s own brand of justice were pursued, things would look quite different.
Consider, for example, Peterson’s public opposition to three-strikes reform: he said he “would not support any change to the law no matter how limited in scope it is.” Of course, the public passed Proposition 36 in 2012 (with nearly 70% in favor) to fundamentally change the three-strikes law and give judges more discretion to avoid harsh sentencing outcomes. Contra Costa’s DA wanted none of it. Five years later, he faced 13 felony charges. And, from the time he was opposing the proposition to the time he was fined by the campaign watchdog, he made over 600 unlawful expenditures. Peterson was the kind of DA who would look at each of these illegal acts in isolation and use them to condemn the defendant as fully as the law permitted. The AG, however, took a far more compassionate approach with him.
In addition to sharing a dated view on the hyper-punitive three-strikes approach, Peterson publicly challenged the claim that racism plays a role in the administration of our criminal justice system. As recently as 2015, no less. In a commentary he wrote in the East Bay Times, he displayed a profound ability to mangle the written word and overlook reality. Using a misguided, tenuous analogy between shoe size and literacy, he wrote: “the reason [for a correlation between shoe size and reading ability] is that young children have small feet and haven’t been taught to read yet. Age affects reading ability, not shoe size.” We’re no experts, but surely age affects shoe size in typical human development. Setting aside his confounding prose, Peterson railed against a Public Defender while decrying the “myth” of racism in criminal justice and spouting about “myriad complex societal and economic reasons that might explain the high number of minorities in the criminal justice system.” Meanwhile, data demonstrates, among other things, that young black men were 21 times more likely to be killed by police officers than their white peers. Despite Peterson’s tone-deaf rant, the County soon after approved a Racial Justice Task Force to study racial disparities in the justice system, including vast minority underrepresentation on criminal juries.
The DA’s criminal behavior may not bear any meaningful relationship to his views about what prosecutors should do. But, public knowledge of Peterson’s utter lack of integrity casts doubt on the policy positions he endorsed and leaves a cloud over the office he led. Of course, his departure represents a real opportunity for change. One of his former colleagues described recent days this way: “It’s like this horrible stench has left the building.” Stench removal may be the first step of many needed to repair the office’s image. A fundamental challenge whenever a prosecutor commits misconduct, breaks the law, or undermines public trust, is the spillover effect, the taint that undercuts the work of honest lawyers who share a profession or office with the culprit. When the prosecutor in charge of the whole operation goes off the track, he has the gravitas to take the public image of the office with him. Deputy District Attorney Simon O’Connell said it best: “[Peterson’s] fall is a reminder to all District Attorneys that integrity must be the paramount quality of a prosecutor.” Contra Costa County officials would do well to prioritize that value in appointing a replacement.