Election 2014: Todd Leras looking to return to Sacramento County DA’s Office as its leader

First in a series of profiles of the candidates for Sacramento County district attorney

For a decade, Todd Leras rode a wave of stardom at the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office. He tried big cases, won most of them, and in 1998 was named its top prosecutor.

Leras still holds a reputation as a brilliant lawyer and a zealous and ethical prosecutor for his work with the DA and later with the U.S. attorney’s office. So the question lingers: Why did things turn sour for him at the end of his tenure in the local prosecutor’s office?

Leras, 50, is now running a long-shot campaign to head the office he ultimately felt compelled to leave.

“I always tried to be a team player, and I had a great time in the DA’s Office for the first 10 years,” Leras said in an interview. “I loved the people, the office, the environment. It was great.”

The tenor changed, Leras says, when he started to offer suggestions about how things could improve. He said his suggestions in areas such as training programs for younger attorneys were interpreted by top management as “criticisms.” The disagreements, he said, were “viewed as disloyalty, and there’s no greater sin you can commit in that office than being disloyal.”

“I thought they were constructive and positive,” Leras said of his recommendations. “Over time, I realized nobody wanted to hear that, and I became more and more alienated from the administration. I felt isolated.”

Now, he’s running against a former colleague, Deputy District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert, 50, as well as Deputy Attorney General Maggy Krell, 35. Schubert has been endorsed by Leras’ old boss, Jan Scully, who is leaving the DA post after five consecutive terms that have spanned 20 years.

As of the most recent reporting period, which ended March 17, Schubert had raised $348,000 and Krell $286,000. Their websites show them regularly walking precincts, posting lawn signs, running phone banks and raising money. Leras, by contrast, has raised $32,000, has attended two fundraisers and spent two days walking precincts. He said that, as he “critically assesses” his chances of winning the race, he has “had reservations about asking people to contribute money.”

“It’s not that I don’t think I can win,” Leras said. “But you have to become realistic. It’s a steep hill.”

With cash scarce, he did not pay the $10,900 for a ballot statement in the sample ballot.

Leras, nevertheless, has generated backing from some of his fellow prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office and several prominent Sacramento defense attorneys, including Hayes Gable III, Donald Masuda, John Duree and Jan Karowsky. At a candidates’ forum last fall, he drew sustained applause from community activists who liked his support for DA investigations into police shootings and his position on California’s medical marijuana law.

“It’s not for me to say I don’t like the reason you say you need it,” Leras said at the forum. He said, if elected, he intended to “educate” his line prosecutors that it was not their job to question whether people were using suspect ailments to obtain pot recommendations from doctors and growing marijuana for something other than medical reasons.

Friction with DA cited

Earnest and intense, and graying at the temples, Leras has nearly 23 years in the legal profession. He is the only candidate in the race who has worked as a public defender, a county and federal prosecutor and also in private practice.

Leras was born and raised in Santa Rosa, and he was only 4 when his parents divorced. He lived at first with his mother, who worked as a hotel maid and at other odd jobs. For a time, he said, they lived in what he described as a “rat hole” behind a biker bar in Santa Rosa, the most they could afford.

He remembers the humiliation he felt when other customers at the grocery store would stare at them for paying with food stamps. “Constantly, the judgment,” Leras said. The experience, he said, left him with a lifelong empathy for the working poor.

At age 12, Leras moved in with his father, who overcame an early business failure to start a successful trucking company. His dad is now 75 and runs Leras Vineyards near the Sonoma County town of Windsor.

“He was the hardest-working man I’ve ever seen in my life,” Leras said.

Leras graduated with honors from UC Davis in 1986 before getting his law degree at UC Berkeley. He began his legal career in private practice in 1989, became a public defender in 1991 and jumped to the DA’s side in 1995, before moving to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2008. He left the federal prosecutor’s office to run for DA.

In the DA’s Office, he worked domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse cases before he was recruited into the homicide unit. Along the way, he won several high-profile convictions.

Most prominently, he was the prosecutor in the case against Aaron Jones, Alfred Sergio Nickson and Charles Michael Robinson, during their trial for the 1999 robbery and murder of Kyle Billing. A graduate of the Art Institute of Chicago, Billing was gunned down at age 23 outside his studio just off Del Paso Boulevard. Nickson and Robinson were sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder, while Jones pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter.

Leras said his career path began to falter in 2006 when he approached Scully with concerns about the office. He said he relayed the discomfort of younger prosecutors in the office who were troubled by the transfer of a top deputy in the drug unit following a one-day strike over pay. According to Leras, that deputy was transferred after he directed “a smart-aleck remark” from the picket line toward Scully and two of her top assistants. Leras said he also wounded himself when he pressed the matter in a tense exchange with a member of Scully’s management staff.

Not long after, Leras said, he was passed over for a promotion. The following year, Scully made him supervisor of the consumer and environmental protection division, he said, but he felt the move was punitive because it removed him from trial work.

“I felt that Jan viewed me as a rival, a potential rival, and as a result, she was going to do everything she could to marginalize me,” Leras said.

Scully declined to discuss Leras. She challenged his assertion, however, that her administration isn’t open to suggestions for change and improvement. She cited a number of ideas that she said came from staff suggestions. Among them: the Parents Against Chronic Truancy program, in which the DA’s Office sends letters to parents of truant students and tries to connect them with community resources to ensure the students show up in class – with a threat of prosecution if they don’t.

Scully also mentioned a program that targets violent gang members and parolees for special prosecutorial attention if they re-offend, as well as creation of a night court for accused probation violators to help clear the daytime dockets.

“That’s why we have stability here,” Scully said. “People feel they’re part of something. Together, we figure it out.”

Scully said all her promotions are merit-based. “The choices are difficult because we have many qualified candidates,” she said. “We have a lot of great people.”

Numerous efforts to get line prosecutors and managers in the DA’s Office, past and present, to discuss Leras on the record were unsuccessful.

A ‘zealous prosecutor’

Leras was recruited into the U.S. attorney’s office in 2008 by his old college roommate, Larry Brown, the former acting U.S. attorney for the Eastern District. Brown, now a Superior Court judge, declined to be interviewed, citing his position on the bench.

Federal prosecutors who have worked with Leras rave about him.

“He’s a very good trial lawyer, very smart, very intelligent,” said William Wong, an assistant U.S. attorney for 24 years. “He is very intellectual. He is well-spoken. He handles a jury very well. He is very respected by the courts here, as well as his colleagues.”

In his five years in the office at Fifth and I streets, Leras worked major methamphetamine investigations, mortgage fraud and white-collar crime, as well as political corruption cases that he said are ongoing.

“It was a wonderful place to work,” Leras said.

Former Assistant U.S. Attorney Dan McConkie shared a wall with Leras for four years in Sacramento before he left to become a law professor at Brigham Young University. He said Leras “is one of the most impressive people I’ve ever met. I’ve never known a more honorable and ethical prosecutor.”

From the other side of the lawyers’ table, Assistant Federal Defender Matt Scoble also spoke glowingly of Leras.

“The standard for a prosecutor is not to seek a conviction, but to seek justice,” Scoble said. “Todd is absolutely somebody who lives and breathes that. He’s a zealous prosecutor, but he is absolutely a consummate professional – fair-minded and always a pleasure to work with.”

Since leaving the U.S. attorney’s office, Leras has been handling a mix of civil and criminal cases in private practice out of his J Street office downtown.

He said he was motivated to run for district attorney by a desire to change the culture of the DA’s Office. As the campaign has progressed, Leras said, it has given him the opportunity to think more deeply about training programs for young lawyers, alternatives to incarceration, and ensuring the success of the state’s 2011 realignment law that has shifted responsibility for lower-level offenders from state prisons and oversight to local jurisdictions.

“I firmly believe there’s been a real shift in the total outlook and approach that people want DAs to take toward crime,” Leras said.