Photo: Paul Chinn, The Chronicle

Even If You Are the Elected District Attorney

By Mark T. Morodomi

When you took your first bar review prep course you probably heard the adage, “The man who represents himself has a fool for a client.”  The internet tries to attribute the quote, like many other profundities, to Abraham Lincoln, but some sources credit it years earlier to English clergyman Henry Kett.  Regardless who said it or who said it first, the wisdom of the adage are at least two.  First, an individual, even if he or she is a trained lawyer, may not have the expertise in the particular area of law at issue, even though many of us think we are smart enough to figure anything out.   (We lawyers are sometimes too smart for our own good.)  More precarious is that someone who represents him or herself is likely to lack the ability to see both sides of a case.  As lawyers, we all know how difficult it is to convince a head strong client from doing something stupid. 

Of course, many people can’t afford to hire a lawyer – but that’s a different thing. I’m talking about those who chose to represent themselves.  Especially lawyers – and lawyers who are politicians.

Mark Peterson, the disgraced and convicted Contra Costa County District Attorney, found out the hard way.  Just last month, Peterson pled no contest to a single count of felony perjury and resigned from office.  Peterson didn’t represent himself in his own criminal case.  But he did represent himself in what seven years earlier he probably considered a crumb of a matter:  he acted as his own political campaign’s treasurer.

Peterson was no novice politician.  He had been a Concord City Councilman before he ran for district attorney in 2010.  He ran and won the D.A.’s seat, while acting as his own campaign treasurer.  He ran again for reelection in 2014, again acting as his own treasurer, and won again.  But a state audit this year revealed that rather than using $66,000 of his campaign fund for election purposes. He used the campaign account for among other things restaurants, gasoline, clothing, movie tickets, and hotel rooms.  Just a little personal “loan,” Peterson said.  Of course, the true use of the money should have been but was not disclosed on legally required campaign disclosure statements, signed under penalty of perjury by, you guessed it, the campaign treasurer. 

Maybe if someone other than Peterson himself had been the campaign treasurer, that treasurer would have said something like, “Hey Mr. Peterson, what’s this receipt for?  Dinner at Fleming’s Prime Steakhouse, a showing of the ‘American Hustle,’ and then a hotel room at the Hilton?  C’mon, Mark, you’re being a knucklehead,” and it all might have ended there. Instead, a man who served the people of Concord and then the people of Contra Costa County leaves just the legacy of being another disgraced politician.

Of course politician Mark Peterson should have known better not to use his campaign funds for personal use and should have known better to not commit perjury on his campaign disclosure statements.  But seven years earlier, attorney at law Mark Peterson should have known not to represent himself, even as campaign treasurer.   

Mark Morodomi is Senior Counsel, Governance in the UCOP’s Office of General Counsel.  Prior to joining the office, Mr. Morodomi was Supervising Deputy City Attorney at the Oakland City Attorney’s Office for twelve years, including service as counsel to the Oakland Public Ethics Commission and Oakland City Auditor and special counsel to the San Francisco Ethics Commission.  Before that, he worked ten years for the State of California Fair Political Practices Commission, as the Chief of Enforcement (Acting) and Senior Counsel. He received his undergraduate degree in Political Science from Stanford University, and his J.D. from New York University, School of Law.

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