From meth addict to Del Norte County DA, Jon Alexander has courted trouble
02/26/2012 12:00 AM
03/07/2013 3:57 PM
March 7, 2013: Editor’s update: Mordechai Pelta, fired from his job as a Del Norte County deputy district attorney, was reinstated and later resigned, he said. According to county personnel spokesman Joseph Young, Pelta was employed by the county until Aug. 29, 2012.
CRESCENT CITY – On his redemptive journey from meth addict to district attorney, Jon Alexander carried one constant companion: a magnet for trouble.
After a methamphetamine habit nearly destroyed him, Alexander resurrected his career and devoted himself to helping other addicts recover. In 2010, running on a platform of "death to meth," he surprised many in Del Norte County, a remote corner of northwest California – known for illicit drugs, salmon fishing and the feared Pelican Bay State Prison – by winning election as district attorney.
Alexander has undermined his efforts to reinvent himself with numerous lapses, now resulting in an FBI probe and State Bar of California investigations on top of prior suspensions of his law license. The district attorney's story resembles the Greek myth, in which Zeus forced Sisyphus to push a boulder up a hill for eternity, except Alexander's recurring troubles seem to be his own doing.
Alexander, 63, wages his war against meth far from the glare of big city jurisprudence, often ignoring common-sense ethical tenets and allegedly acting improperly to gain legal advantage or make a buck.
The FBI has launched an inquiry into Alexander for possible bribery. Among the 46 lawyers practicing in this county of fewer than 30,000 residents, the DA has the singular distinction of having been sanctioned by the State Bar for misdeeds, including multiple suspensions. He practices under bar probation until May 2013.
Since Alexander's election in November 2010, the bar has launched at least two new probes into his behavior and he has been implicated in numerous alleged legal or ethical lapses, including:
In December 2010, a local lawyer loaned Alexander $6,000 for hair transplants. Alexander later dropped all charges against the lawyer's client, accused of stealing a child from a day care center. Alexander said he repaid the loan before he took office and denied showing favoritism. A State Bar investigation and the FBI probe have focused on that case.
In 2010 and 2011, according to emails obtained by The Bee, he tried to sell or trade his endorsement for one of the county's public defender jobs, a slot he vacated to become DA. "That's Rod Blagojevich territory," said Rex R. Perschbacher, professor and former dean of the UC Davis School of Law, referring to the Illinois governor, sentenced to prison in an extreme case of trying to sell an appointment to the U.S. Senate. Alexander denied any wrongdoing.
During 2011, Alexander's office charged at least a dozen of his former defense clients, court records show. To prevent conflicts of interest, DAs generally have the state attorney general's office pick up such cases. Bar spokesman William Chiang said he could not recall any recent DA who violated that precept, which can lead to disbarment. Alexander said he never knowingly prosecuted a former client, and that if such cases occurred they would have been due to record-keeping errors.
The bar does not does discuss investigations in process. But an internal email suggests that the agency has grown weary of Del Norte drama.
"I do not believe for a second that Alexander should be DA (because) I think his mental abilities continue to be adversely affected by his long time meth use, even though he appears to be sober now," wrote State Bar deputy trial counselor Cydney Batchelor, in a message obtained by The Bee. "No doubt the AG agrees."
The journey to DA
Seated at his desk in his office in Crescent City – a scale-model human skeleton wearing an anti-meth T-shirt standing guard – Alexander recently recounted his descent into a living hell. In 1996, while managing a successful Orange County defense practice and caring for his late mother, an Alzheimer's patient and insomniac, the stress got to him.
"I started chipping away on meth, just to stay awake during the day," he said. "Around 2000, 2001, I was falling apart" from sleep deprivation, he added, and "the emotional devastation of seeing my best friend going insane."
Alexander was arrested and spent time in jail. He was suspended for six months from the practice of law for taking money from a client without providing any services. By 2003, Alexander said, he had lost his girlfriend, harborside home and car, and was living in the crawl space under a Laguna Beach house with his mother's dog, a Fender Stratocaster guitar and a handgun.
"I remember thinking, 'it's never going to get better,' " he said. "I can tell you to this day what the gun tasted like."
Alexander pawned the thousand-dollar guitar for $100 and headed for a shooting gallery motel.
"The next thing I know, I'm in an alley with a broken neck," he said, recalling that he thought, "I didn't even have the good sense to die."
In the hospital, a friend and mentor, California Court of Appeal Associate Justice William W. Bedsworth, pleaded with Alexander to enter rehab.
He turned to the Salvation Army and emerged sober six months later. In his wallet, he carries a laminated card that combines the Serenity Prayer and a ticket to a concert by Bruce Springsteen, whose inspirational posters adorn his office.
"It's about staying true to what you believe in," Alexander said, "delivering every time you put yourself out there."
He moved to Del Norte to be close to his mother in a nearby senior home. Recovery became his cause, and he built programs to help other addicts. He also began the second half of his redemption: repairing his standing in his profession.
Prior to his meth addiction, Alexander was suspended in 1989 from legal practice for failing to pay bar dues. He later was disciplined for driving without a current license, for taking money from clients without performing services, practicing while suspended and "moral turpitude, dishonesty or corruption."
A lawyer who violates ethical rules and laws – even one who has been convicted and jailed – often can practice again after serving penalties imposed by the State Bar Court. Alexander was required to repay money he took improperly, attend ethics training, and abstain from alcohol or illicit drugs.
After regaining the right to practice, in January 2005 Alexander asked Michael Riese, then DA of Del Norte, for a job. Alexander's legal experience enticed Riese to take a chance. A ruined life, it seemed, had been replaced with one of purpose.
But within two months, trouble started anew. Then-Senior Deputy DA Karen Olson wrote in a memo for Alexander's personnel file, obtained by The Bee, that he behaved defiantly and meddled in other attorneys' cases.
Prosecutor Katherine Micks filed a harassment complaint after Alexander called her "a pussy" for delaying a case she considered weak, berating her publicly and leaving a voicemail whose "tone and statements frightened me," Micks wrote.
When Olson spoke to Alexander about the matter, "Jon went out of his way to undermine and belittle a fellow employee," she wrote, calling Alexander "a liability to this office and to the county."
Alexander's creditors also complained to Riese. An ambulance company that took Alexander to a hospital with chest pain said he refused to pay and later tried to defraud the workers' compensation system, according to letters addressed to Riese. The firm later prevailed against Alexander in small-claims court, according to an online summary. In another complaint to Riese, a drug screening clinic claimed that Alexander stiffed them.
"He will lie, manipulate, and attack when he feels it will benefit his own personal agenda " wrote Olson, who declined to comment about Alexander for this report.
In June 2005 Alexander penned an "ex parte" communication with a judge – a private letter urging a tough sentence for a meth dealer, sent behind the backs of his colleagues and the defense lawyer. The judge refused to read the handwritten polemic, ruling it improper.
"I'm guilty of bad judgment, arrogance and overstepping my bounds," Alexander wrote to Riese in a detailed apology, which described his actions as well-meaning. Riese fired Alexander a few days later. He had lasted less than six months.
Undaunted, Alexander ran for DA in 2006, accusing his former boss of corruption. Riese easily won re-election.
A few weeks later, citing Alexander's ex parte communication and other transgressions, the State Bar again ordered him ineligible to practice, this time for three months.
Again, Alexander dusted himself off. He built a successful private practice, became a public defender who vigorously defended accused drug offenders, among others, and redoubled his volunteer efforts against addiction.
In 2010, Alexander again ran for DA on a "death to meth" platform, and cited his service to 12-step recovery programs. His Facebook campaign page touted the candidate's graduation from the University of Kentucky; according to school registrars he graduated from Transylvania University, a small private institution in Lexington, Ky.
The job of DA pays $94,000 annually – far less than he earned as a defense counsel. Yet he spent $99,000 on the mostly self-financed campaign, according to election filings. It sapped his entire life savings, Alexander said. Riese was ousted in the first round. Alexander won a runoff by 93 votes out of about 7,000 cast. His final opponent spent less than $20,000.
"I don't delude myself," Alexander said. "(In) no other county in the state of California – I don't think anywhere in this country – would I have had a chance."
His mentor, Justice Bedsworth, marked the victory in a poignant tribute on the Orange County Bar Association website.
"If you get knocked down this year, if your life turns into an adversary who knows more about boxing than you do," he wrote, "I wish you the resilience and fortitude of Jon Alexander."
That resilience plays well in a town that knows trouble.
Last March, a tsunami destroyed much of the Crescent City harbor and neighbors joined relief workers to set up emergency services and clean up the debris. "I look out at the harbor and then across the street to a town that has taken some hard shots," Alexander wrote a few months later in the local paper, "and still refused to stay on the canvas."
Given the tiny legal community, it's easy to find a former DA or a public defender in the Good Harvest Cafe or at the salad bar at Northwoods Restaurant – popular eateries along Highway 101, which runs through town.
Enough locals have served stints as prosecutors and defense attorneys that most – like the people they serve – seem to see both sides of an issue. But a recent "child stealing" case polarized the community.
In 2010, single mother Amber Wesson hit a parked car. She was booked for a possible DUI, charges that later were dropped. Jackie Zlokovich, a neighbor, learned about the incident and retrieved Wesson's 4-year-old daughter from a local day care center. She was not authorized to do so.
Center director Jane Goss winced as she recounted the events in an interview, blaming herself for releasing the girl.
Police records show that Zlokovich delivered the daughter to another woman and refused to divulge her whereabouts to Goss, Wesson's father – who was authorized to pick up the girl – or a sheriff's deputy assigned to find her. Zlokovich alerted the child's father, who lived in Orange County and according to Wesson did not have physical custody rights.
Late that evening, Wesson's child finally was released unharmed into her grandfather's care. Zlokovich was charged by then-DA Riese with child stealing and obstructing a peace officer.
Soon after Alexander took over, he dropped the charges, calling the case "a dog with fleas" – a sure loser. He said that Judge William Follett, who presided over the case, agreed. Follett declined to comment.
Wesson complained to the State Bar, alleging a conflict of interest between the DA and George Mavris, a local attorney who represented Zlokovich. Mavris, the DA's friend and former business partner, did not respond to calls seeking comment.
Mavris' family had loaned Alexander $6,000 in December 2010, just after the election, the DA acknowledged. He was broke, and needed cash for hair transplants. Alexander repaid the money that month, he said, and provides "no favors" to Mavris in court.
Goss, who faces possible decertification of her day care center and loss of her professional license, acknowledged her error. But she couldn't understand the DA's decision not to prosecute.
"It's like saying to (Zlokovich) and the public that taking a child and withholding information from the sheriff's deputy is OK," Goss said.
Wesson recently said she was told by a State Bar investigator that her complaint remains under investigation. The FBI has been examining the loan as a possible bribe, according to the field agent who conducted the inquiry.
Asking for money
Correspondence by Alexander, written shortly after he was elected, suggested financial anxiety despite the Mavris loan.
According to the messages and a written agreement obtained by The Bee, he offered to endorse Olson for his public defender slot – one of four appointed in the county. But for a price.
Alexander wanted $6,000, plus the right to half of all future fees for cases assigned to him before Olson took over – cases that she would defend in months to come.
In an email to another of the county's public defenders, Olson called the agreement "the extortion contract." That attorney advised her not to sign. Alexander wrote in an email to The Bee that he merely expected "a legitimate portion of the compensation for the cases," given his prior work on them.
They didn't sign it and close the deal. Nor did Olson get the job.
Last August a public defender slot again opened up. Alexander again offered Olson his endorsement. This time he used Micks, who had accused him of harassment years earlier and now was his chief deputy, as intermediary. In return, Alexander wanted Olson to write a declaration that she had not disseminated an email exchange between Alexander and the office manager from his private practice.
The emails, obtained by The Bee, describe private practice activities after Alexander became DA. The messages show that while serving as DA, he directed billing and communications with some of his private clients. Alexander also, in effect, denied counsel to some clients, because as DA he could not officially act on their behalf but failed to substitute himself with attorneys who could.
Such activities are widely regarded as improper for a sitting DA.
Micks wrote to Olson that Alexander wanted the declaration "for his own edification that you were not involved in any criminal activity" – disseminating the emails. Olson responded that she might be willing to write the declaration, but didn't want his endorsement, calling it "a clear conflict of interest" for Alexander to influence the selection of his future courtroom opponent.
Micks confirmed the exchanges, but otherwise declined to comment.
In an interview, Alexander denied any such negotiations. He refused to discuss the content of the emails between himself and his office manager, except to assert that they showed "nothing that indicated any criminality whatever."
Stanford University Law professor Robert Weisberg, a legal ethics scholar, said that from the first day in office, a DA needs to be totally removed from private work, calling anything less "inexcusable."
Where legal lines cross
Alexander seems prone to blur such boundaries.
Just after taking office, he urged the attorney general to charge a violent ex-offender whom he had once represented. He complained in an email to his former office manager that the attorney general "had the balls to threaten me with the bar getting upset with me for wanting to see a former client prosecuted."
Alexander said in an interview that he "expressed displeasure," but did not encourage prosecution, and knew nothing about the attorney general's threat to report him to the bar – despite his own email referring to it.
In another case, Alexander allegedly committed a serious legal error. It started with a routine meth bust.
According to court records, Michelle Taylor, 24, initially said the meth belonged to her companion. A few weeks later, she walked into the DA's office to confess, to protect the companion, according to a recording obtained by The Bee.
Alexander asked if she had a lawyer. She did. He pressed Taylor to reveal who sold her the meth, and warned that she faced felony charges that could land her in prison.
There was only one problem: A prosecutor cannot legally speak to a defendant without her lawyer's permission.
Alexander said that during the conversation he recalled that Taylor's attorney had given him permission to speak to his client about rehab. On the recording, rehab never comes up. Neither Taylor nor her lawyer responded to calls seeking comment.
The bar is investigating, said an attorney representing Alexander. Again, said State Bar spokesman Chiang, such cases are so rare that no prosecutor in recent memory has been disbarred or disciplined for a similar violation.
The attorney general's office has taken over Taylor's prosecution, said spokeswoman Lynda Gledhill, "to avoid any appearance of a conflict and to ensure that the defendant gets a fair trial."
Weisberg, the Stanford professor, called Alexander's actions toward Taylor "egregious."
"It's called a violation of the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution," he said, describing the episode as "unbelievably serious."
Despite his apparent financial and legal missteps, Alexander has not wavered in his war on meth.
Meth "is ravaging this county," he said, estimating that 70 percent of felonies, including robberies, are methamphetamine-related.
Sheriff Dean Wilson, a law enforcement officer in the county since 1979, praised Alexander's zeal.
"We all want to change the world, to make it better in our own way," Wilson said. "Then we run up against reality."
Resource shortages and judges who disagree with the DA's approach have limited Alexander's success, Wilson said. And meth – while a significant problem – is not the overriding scourge Alexander describes. There are no huge labs or big dealers. It's mostly small-timers who deal or steal to support their own habits.
Alexander said his war on meth and history of addiction have attracted "venal" opponents, including embittered former colleagues, who have raised old "false allegations" irrelevant to his work.
The DA refused to address disputes involving two whom he described as detractors, former District Attorney Riese and former Deputy District Attorney Mordechai Pelta. Pelta, fired by Alexander last spring, has challenged that action.
Riese recently was acquitted of child endangerment and DUI. He attributed his arrest to Alexander's animus toward him and claimed that the DA had manipulated witnesses.
Alexander called Riese and Pelta – as well as Olson – likely authors of what the DA described as anonymous emails recently disseminated by "people who are trying to destroy me."
The messages accused him of "dumping cases for sex," hitting on minor girls and using drugs again, Alexander said. His investigators are looking into who was behind them, he said in emails to The Bee.
Riese, Pelta and Olson each denied the accusation as absurd.
"If I was inclined to send Jon an email, I would not hide behind an alias," Olson said. "I do not play those cowardly games."
Alexander said in an interview that his defense against "false bar complaints" has cost $43,000.
Pelta complained about Alexander to the State Bar and Riese forwarded to the bar the recording of Alexander and Taylor, the young woman accused of meth offenses.
If the bar were to suspend or disbar Alexander, he could no longer serve as DA, according to the Del Norte county counsel.
Whether Alexander violated laws or professional norms, or merely exercised poor judgment, said Weisberg, the Stanford ethics scholar, the DA's various improprieties were "idiotic."
"So foolish to risk," he said, "and so easy to avoid."
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