OAKLAND, California—In a swift and near-unprecedented fall, Contra Costa County District Attorney Mark Peterson resigned from his post Tuesday after allegations of misusing campaign funds led to a plea of no contest for one count of felony perjury.
Peterson, who is accused of redirecting $66,000 of his election money toward personal items over a five-year period, stepped down after nearly eight years on the job. The allegations, which arose in December, led to a sentence of 250 hours of community service and three years of probation.
“As deputies, we’re just hopeful that Mr. Peterson’s plea and resignation will help clear the black cloud that’s been hanging over the office,” Colleen Gleason, vice president of the Contra Costa County District Attorneys Association, told The Daily Beast.
As the San Francisco Chronicle reported, a sitting county district attorney receiving a grand jury accusation is extremely rare.
“It happens three times in a century,” Stanford Law Professor Robert Weisberg told the Chronicle. “It’s very, very rare.”
But his near-decade spent atop of the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office was certainly not free of controversy. In fact, the history of Peterson’s tenure tells a story of interdepartmental turmoil, political backstabbing, and demands of ultimate loyalty. In short, it sounded a little bit like the Trump administration.
Even before Peterson took office, his name had been entangled in gossip. During his initial campaign, he was seen as an outsider candidate. His opponent, Dan O’Malley, counted a number of high-profile connections: Sister Nancy O’Malley was and still is the neighboring Alameda County district attorney, and his father and wife both served as well-regarded judges in the Bay Area.
Additionally, the majority of Contra County district attorney employees supported O’Malley, bolstering Peterson’s outsider credentials.
As the campaign went on, the rhetoric between the candidates grew nastier and nastier. Peterson accused O’Malley of improper fundraising; later, a Contra Costa County prosecutor punched his supervisor after an argument about interoffice politicking escalated to a violent level.
Peterson emerged victorious in November 2010, but soon thereafter found himself mired in a series of legal issues. By the end of 2012, Peterson faced lawsuits from three of his employees, all of whom accused him of attempting to exact retribution for their lack of support during the election.
“Under Peterson, things have really gone off the rails at the DA’s office,” Kathy Dickson, an attorney for one of the defendants, told the Contra Costa Times in 2012. “It’s been politicized more than it’s ever been before, and morale is at an all-time low.”
In late 2014, Peterson and Public Defender Robin Lipetzky entered into a feud after Lipetzky spoke out in the wake of grand juries declining to prosecute the police officers involved in the Eric Garner case on New York’s Staten Island.
“We here in the Public Defender’s Office walk through these halls of justice day in and day out and we see the immediate effects of the disparate treatment on our clients,” Lipetzky said in a video captured by the San Jose Mercury News. “We see it in the fact that people of color are underrepresented on our juries and they are overrepresented in our jails. We see it when young men of color, our juvenile clients, are shackled in public and paraded across the street to their court appearances. We see it every day in judicial decisions and in district attorney filing decisions.”
In response, Peterson lashed out in a news release titled “All Lives Matter.”
Throughout the news release, Peterson maintained that black suspects are not treated differently during any part of the legal process and said that what he inferred from Lipetzky’s remarks was that “black lives don’t matter to us.”
“Shame on her for her baldfaced lie,” he said. “All lives matter.”
Peterson went on to say that the representation of minorities in jail is a reflection of reality.
"Unfortunately, it’s a sad fact that these crimes are perpetrated disproportionately by poor people of color, and it’s equally true that these violent crimes are perpetrated disproportionately upon poor people of color,” Peterson wrote.
Peterson faced direct accusations of going soft on law enforcement in 2016 in the wake of the sex-trafficking scandal surrounding Celeste Guap, who said she’d had sexual contact with at least 30 law-enforcement officers in the Bay Area, and that at least four encounters had occurred while she was still a minor.
Some of those law-enforcement officers resided in Contra Costa County, and Peterson took some heat from one of Guap’s attorneys, Pamela Price, for declining to prosecute those particular officers.
“There is a failure in communication and coordination among law-enforcement agencies, where you can have one district attorney who says, ‘I have evidence of wrongdoing by an officer of the law, but I can’t prosecute him because he’s not in my jurisdiction,’” Price told KQED News in September 2016.
Charles Bonner, another one of Guap’s attorneys, told The Daily Beast that, if the accusations against Peterson are true, it’s an affront to the democratic system.
“That kind of [alleged] conduct is a tremendous breach of the public trust and erodes the glue that holds society together,” Bonner said. “Peterson holds a position that requires public trust. The allegations against them are troubling, and absolutely a disregard to the public trust.”
Meanwhile, the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office is left to attempt to build up that trust once more, eroded after years of uneven management.
“We look forward to moving on from what has happened,” Aron DeFerrari, president of the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Association, told The Daily Beast. “The criminal prosecutors here are focused on getting justice for the members of this community. The name on our building doesn’t change our fundamental mission—to get justice—and it never will.”