Questions swirling around a homicide investigation and prosecutors’ dispute with a judge are two of the issues that make this year’s race for Stanislaus County district attorney so heated.
But that’s what many expected when a criminal defense attorney who has been a longtime critic of the District Attorney’s Office entered the race in November.
Since then, two-term incumbent Birgit Fladager has spent time responding to claims made by her challenger, Frank Carson.
It’s a different experience from Fladager’s last campaign, when she ran unopposed and spent little money to be re-elected.
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“It has been more contentious with Mr. Carson making these complaints publicly as his platform about employees in the office that are unwarranted and incorrect,” Fladager said.
Carson says his criticism is directed at what he calls a “profoundly dysfunctional” management style that relies on fear, intimidation and secrecy. He claims some of Fladager’s prosecutors and staff secretly pledged their support for his candidacy because he knows the issues they deal with in the courtroom.
“I think they respect my work and my opinion,” said Carson, who has spent more than two decades as a criminal defense attorney in the county.
Fladager said she has a difficult time imagining Carson as the county’s top prosecutor after he’s spent more than 20 years saying “terrible things” about the District Attorney’s Office and its employees. She thinks many prosecutors and staff would leave if Carson is elected.
“I suspect there would be many folks looking for work elsewhere,” Fladager said.
While Fladager has been fighting off claims of mismanagement, Carson has had to explain his connection to a criminal investigation. He claims any suggestion he is involved in a homicide is absurd.
Korey Kauffman’s body was discovered by hunters in an isolated area of Mariposa County in August. Carson’s property was searched as part of the investigation not long after Kauffman went missing in late March 2012.
“I don’t think it’s proof of anything,” Carson said about the search and the inclusion of his name among about 20 people listed in the investigation into Kauffman’s death.
Carson has hired an attorney, who advised him not to speak about specific details with news media. His attorney says Carson wants to clear his name, which frequently has been brought up by investigators questioning witnesses and suspects in the Kauffman case.
Fladager said the property search occurred long before Carson announced his candidacy in the fall, so there was no political motivation. Two brothers who own a Turlock store and have been questioned in connection with Kauffman’s death have protested outside Fladager’s downtown Modesto office, asking for her removal.
“It appears this is an attempt to use this case as a campaign issue,” Fladager said. “It appears it’s been used as a distraction from the real issues.”
Robert Woody is the only suspect identified and arrested in the Kauffman homicide investigation. Three co-conspirators are mentioned in court documents, but their names are not listed.
When asked whether it would be fair to voters to name these co-conspirators, Fladager said prosecutors are bound by rules that prevent them from publicly discussing a pending case. She says those rules are designed to protect the rights of victims and to ensure defendants receive a fair trial.
“Unidentified co-conspirators are unidentified co-conspirators for a reason,” Fladager said.
Dispute with judge
Carson also has been critical of Fladager’s dispute with Superior Court Judge John Freeland. She ordered prosecutors to move criminal cases out of Freeland’s courtroom for months until he was reassigned to civil court.
The defense attorney said the boycott of Freeland had a long-lasting negative effect. He suggests that other judges will be less likely to rule against prosecutors, for fear they might also be transferred.
The district attorney has refused to discuss specifics about her concerns with Freeland but has told The Modesto Bee that it’s the judge’s competency in handling criminal matters that raised her concerns. She said she ordered prosecutors to reject Freeland in all new criminal matters, which is an attorney’s right that can be exercised when cases begin.
“We don’t expect rulings to go our way all the time, but we have a responsibility to ensure justice,” Fladager said.
The candidates do agree on one thing – the District Attorney’s Office needs more prosecutors. But they want to take different approaches to tackle that issue.
Fladager’s office has a $15 million budget and about 120 employees. She wants the county Board of Supervisors to pay to beef up her staff to seek a new gang injunction and create a computer forensics unit. But, as Fladager acknowledged, the injunction wouldn’t be possible for two more years and would require police agencies to hire more patrol officers to enforce it.
Carson said the answer isn’t throwing more money at the problem. He said Fladager has hired too many investigators and that he wants to control spending on “pet projects” and be more careful about which cases make it into a courtroom.
“Not every case should be charged. Not every case should go to trial,” Carson said about using resources more efficiently.
If Carson is elected, Fladager said, he would have to reach out to the prosecutors and their support staff, victims rights groups and law enforcement agencies. She said it would take some time for him to earn their trust and build working relationships.
The defense attorney said some county officials might be uncomfortable with the prospect of him becoming district attorney because it won’t be business as usual. “I don’t have to have an allegiance to back up the sheriff,” Carson said. “I don’t have to back up the county.”
As long as everyone is doing their jobs well and ethically, he said they won’t have any problems from him. “We’re going to play by the book,” Carson said. “We’re going to be open and honest.”