In a small town/county such as ours, it’s virtually impossible to avoid conflicts of interest. A newspaper publisher grapples with it every day. Advertisers who pay good money expect positive news coverage in return. Like the various local political candidates seeking election, for example. Is the news coverage skewed based upon who’s paying more? Will judicial decisions be skewed based upon endorsements either received or rescinded? One would like to think he/she is immune from such pedestrian influences, but maybe it’s up to others to decide. So the following is a brief list of conflicts one should know about, realizing of course there are another thousand out there left undisclosed.
Therese Hankel is my attorney. And she is a damn fine attorney. I may actually be biased against her campaign because if she wins, I’m out a lawyer.
Hankel, FYI, has never asked me for an endorsement, either in this campaign or in her 2006 campaign for Town Council. Likewise, though I think she’s done a great job as my attorney, I am not endorsing anyone for Judge. Does her effectiveness as my attorney translate into effectiveness as a Judge? That’s for the voters to decide.
Randy Gephart and Stan Eller are very good friends. Is that why Eller is endorsing Gephart for Judge? Again, let the voters decide.
Tony Barrett has helped spearhead the drive to legalize marijuana cooperatives in Town. Is that why his sign is placed out front of Wave Rave?
Angela Olson, the person who wrote a fairly entertaining if blunt letter to the editor a few weeks back endorsing Barrett, Lehman and Vereuck as the best Council candidates is Lehman’s campaign manager and is organizing a fundraiser for Vereuck this Friday.
Shalle Genevieve, who responded to Olson’s letter and implied that Olson is partial to developers because of her relationship with Mark Deeds … didn’t disclose her ties to the Advocates for Mammoth.
Rhonda Duggan just took a job with Jim Demetriades. She told The Sheet yesterday she was not approached about the job until after her vote on Old Mammoth Place.
It goes on and on. We try to connect all the dots so our readers can weigh the information presented. Sometimes, we do a better job than others.
Below are brief write-ups from interviews with judicial candidates conducted this week.
Gephart touts his experience as what separates him from his fellow judicial candidates. “I have 10 years more experience than either … the citizens of Mono County deserve the person most qualified to be the best judge.”
Gephart has also received endorsements from Presiding Judge Stan Eller as well as District Attorney George Booth.
“Judge Eller has a vested interest [in this election] … the next judge will become his partner. Probably for the duration of his tenure on the bench.”
As for Booth, The Sheet referenced a candidate’s forum where Gephart boasted that the D.A. was endorsing him even though Gephart has been battling against the D.A.’s office as a public defender for 22 years.
To paraphrase, The Sheet asked, “If you were such a tough adversary, why would he [Booth] want you to be judge? That sounds like an even bigger headache for a D.A. Maybe he feels like he can roll you.”
“I don’t think that is the answer,” replied Gephart diplomatically. “They’ve seen who I am for 22 years, as a lawyer and an advocate zealously defending clients. They view me as a worthy adversary. Not that I’m pro-defense or pro-prosecution, but pro-justice in its broadest sense.”
A conversation with Booth on Thursday revealed that Booth has lost the only trial he’s had against Gephart, so one could also argue he’d rather have nothing to do with him. As Booth said, “This is my 37th year of doing this stuff. You learn a lot about a person you oppose on a regular basis. It’s a window into the heart and soul. And Randy’s the most qualified, intelligent, practical and realistic candidate.”
Gephart also touts his business experience as bringing balance to the court. “For 22 years, I’ve not only practiced law, but managed a business, making payroll, employing 5 to 8 people. It doesn’t mean I have a bias towards business people, however, I have an appreciation for what the average business person deals with on a daily basis.”
The Gephart mantra: “There is no substitute for experience.”
“The Judge is not the star,” says Mark Magit. “The Judge administers the court and ensures the playing field is level. The Judge is like a referee and keeps things moving forward. If a Judge isn’t on time, deliberate and consistent, the whole process gets mucked up.”
Magit, who has been endorsed by retired Judge Ed Forstenzer, clearly wishes to emulate Forstenzer in certain respects. Based upon the office, Magit understands there are certain restrictions to one’s lifestyle that one has to accept.
“Forstenzer always kept his distance,” said Magit. “He cultivated a reputation for independence and impartiality.”
And as Paul Rudder observed in his remarks at Forstenzer’s retirement dinner last Saturday, “Once Ed became judge, there were no more funny stories.”
The implication being that the office demands a respect and restraint that extends beyond the courtroom.
Magit said that while he remains friendly with “the inner circle” he used to be a part of for the eight years he served as a Deputy D.A., when he left the D.A.’s office, it represented a break from that circle.
“When you’re in the D.A.’s office, you’re a part of the system. Being outside of that, that’s when you sense the power.”
Magit believes Booth has endorsed Gephart because “He [Booth] wants someone in there he can push around … When was the last time Randy Gephart did a jury trial in Mono County? Has he taken the D.A. to bat once in the last year? The last 10 years? … From my perspective, Randy Gephart has not given George Booth a lot of work.”
Magit views himself as more of a countywide candidate based upon his breadth of experience as a Deputy D.A. and in his current role as Assistant Mono County Counsel.
Therese Hankel knows she is perceived as the underdog and the outsider in the judicial race. But she is also confident that Mono County voters have more respect for the independence of the ballot box than they do for the “buddy system.”
“I have a real problem with all the endorsements [for Gephart and Magit] in such a small community … if you win, don’t you owe them [your endorsers]? If two people who’ve endorsed you come before you as judge, do you sit there and ask yourself, ‘who do I owe more?
How do you not recuse yourself if those who have endorsed you come before you? The people elect you to hear cases.
“Ultimately, a judge should be elected based upon experience and credentials, not based upon how many judges you know or who you have dinner with.
“I am NOT one of the boys … in every respect,” she concluded with a twinkle.
Sheet: Not only are you the underdog, but you are perceived as a champion of the underdog. Would that perspective affect how you rule on the bench?
Hankel: I don’t think there’s a difference between championing the underdog versus championing justice. I’m always trying to do what is fair, giving a person, regardless of background or circumstances, a fair shake.
Sheet: You’re also perceived as, how do I put this, being a bit disorganized
Hankel: Typically, in a law firm, two lawyers can pay for one support staffer. As a solo practitioner, it’s harder for me to hire and keep support staff, especially because I tend to take on so much pro bono work.
But let me go back to the underdog question. Remember, I tried the Harris case. I didn’t settle it. It was an unpopular case and took up all sorts of time and resources. Mike Harris was a difficult client and he was difficult to get along with, but I still managed to continue to represent him … It wouldn’t have cost the County any extra money for Randy Gephart to handle the case (Harris was initially Gephart’s client, and Gephart has the County’s public defender contract). My bill will not be small.
Public pressure doesn’t make me back down. And I’ve never ditched a client because of an inability to pay. Life is tough for everyone in the Eastern Sierra. It shouldn’t be cushy for a lawyer.
*Attention political junkies. From 9-12 in the morning this Friday and next, Lunch and the Wildchild Darrell Johnson will be waxing philosophic about the upcoming election live on www.thesheetradio.com. This Friday, Darrell’s bringing his ballot to the studio and challenges local politicos to stop by the studio (above Coach in the Luxury Outlet mall) to go on-air and try to win his vote! Also, coverage of Thursday’s late-breaking Mammoth Unified School Board and Mammoth Lakes Housing meetings can be found online at www.thesheetnews.com.