Some in D.A.'s Office Angry Over Challenger's Political Charge : Campaign: Prosecutors are divided over whether poor management, as candidate Thomas Avdeef claims, or low pay has driven off more than 50 of their number.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

No one in the district attorney's office disputes that the exodus of deputy prosecutors--more than 50 in the last two years--has been a problem.

But many prosecutors and former prosecutors are furious that Deputy Dist. Atty. Thomas Avdeef, who is running for district attorney against his boss, Michael R. Capizzi, has made it a political issue.

"We have to have an administration that keeps people happy," Avdeef told one group. "There is a split . . . there is smoke."

Many say, however, that Avdeef should be pointing his finger at the Board of Supervisors, not at Capizzi. Most of the veterans departed, they say, because they could make more money than the district attorney pay scale set by the supervisors.

"There's no question that we're concerned about losing some very excellent people," Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Maurice L. Evans said. "But if you take a close look at why they left--all but one or two--it had nothing to do with not liking the way the office is run."

Evans and others within the office believe that the Board of Supervisors went a long way last week toward solving the problem. The supervisors agreed to a salary-increase package for all lawyers in the district attorney's, public defender's and county counsel's offices that gives many of them raises of between 20% and 40% over the next three years.

Before the increase, an entry-level prosecutor made $35,173. But this year, that prosecutor will receive $41,580 to $44,000, and by 1992, the starting salary will be a minimum of $49,486.

More significantly, supervisors created a new position, "senior attorney," a step between the most veteran trial deputies and the first level of management. Supervisors authorized 32 senior attorney positions.

By 1992, senior attorneys will be receiving more than $100,000 a year, including potential bonuses. By comparison, top trial deputies now earn just under $75,000.

While those salaries are high compared to those of most other county employees, lawyers involved say the past salary scale has been dismally low compared to those in other counties and in private practice.

"We had to do something to encourage new people to come into the office, and we had to do something to try to keep some of our more experienced people happy," Evans said. "I think this package will go a long way toward that."

Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher J. Evans, a member of the team that negotiated the new contract, believes the new package will please many veterans who might otherwise leave.

Christopher Evans also disputed the idea that the exodus of prosecutors from the office is a legitimate political issue. "That's bull," he said. "People leave because they can simply get more money somewhere else."

Avdeef insists that the departure of deputies is at least an issue that should be addressed by Capizzi and the other candidates--Assistant Dist. Atty. Edgar A. Freeman and Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. James G. Enright.

Capizzi has been in office only two months, appointed by supervisors to succeed Cecil Hicks, who accepted a judgeship. But even when Hicks was district attorney, Capizzi ran the office, observers say.

"These deputies, the lifeblood of the office, are going out the backdoor," Avdeef said. "You have to have leadership at the top."

One veteran attorney within the office, who asked for anonymity, said that many within the office support Avdeef's contention. "We're losing great people and not replacing them with the same quality," the deputy said. "Management cannot be totally blameless for that."

But Capizzi supporters point out that there can be many reasons for attorneys resigning. An office study of why the 28 most senior attorneys have left the office since 1988 shows that four became judges, two were unhappy over lack of promotion, four became prosecutors in other counties and 18 went into private practice.

Maury Evans said that several of the more than 50 who left the office were newcomers who, after the mandatory year of probation, were not asked to remain. "Not everyone is cut out to be a prosecutor," he said.

But losing veterans on the staff is a great concern, he added.

"No question that it hurts when you lose a Tony Rackauckas," Maurice Evans said. Anthony J. Rackauckas Jr., a 16-year veteran and a top homicide prosecutor within the office, left in 1988 to enter private practice, then earlier this year accepted a judgeship.

Steven L. Perk, a six-year deputy in the special operations section, said he left for economic reasons.

"You might not make more in the beginning in private practice, but in the long run it is substantially more profitable," Perk said. "I loved the job. I had a great time. But sometimes you have to move on."

Joel Kew, who left the sexual assault unit for private practice, said the problem wasn't just the money but how the low salaries affected the quality of the staff. "The byproduct was that so many good people leave the D.A.'s office that you were left to work with too many dullards," Kew said.

Kew said it is "a farce" for Avdeef to make the exodus of attorneys a political issue. "Mike Capizzi gives you free rein to put on your case," Kew said. "And that's all I ever wanted."

But not everyone who left was satisfied with office management.

Diane Kadletz, now in private practice with her husband, criticized Hicks and Capizzi for not promoting women as quickly as men. "If they wanted to promote a certain man, they would find a way to do it, but they wouldn't do that for a woman," she claimed.

Kadletz acknowledged that she left because she was angry at not being promoted from Grade 3 to Grade 4 after 10 years on the job. But she also said that management in the district attorney's office had very little to do with why the great majority left.

Maurice Evans points out that some people who leave the office wind up returning. One of them was Brent F. Romney, now in charge of major fraud cases, who is regarded as a rising star in the office. Five years ago, Romney tried private practice for a few months but did not like it.

Another was Thomas M. Goethals, head of writs and appeals, who left briefly six years ago but returned because "I didn't have being a prosecutor out of my system."

But unfortunately for management, Goethals has once again decided to leave, this time to practice criminal law with a close friend, veteran homicide lawyer Gary M. Pohlson. Friday was his last day.

Goethals defended Capizzi as a good leader. But he added that the transitions in the office indirectly affected his decision to leave, because they led to some soul-searching about his own career.

"When Cecil left, it just made me realize that I'd been sitting here fat, dumb and happy for 12 years. I couldn't believe the time had gone by so fast," Goethals said. "I'm 37. After a lot of thought, I decided if I'm ever going to see if I can do anything else, now was the time."

RAISES FOR COUNTY GOVERNMENT LAWYERS

To help stem the flow of attorneys leaving county government for more profitable employment, county supervisors last week enacted hefty pay raises and created the new, high-paying position of "senior attorney." The following wage schedule applies to lawyers in the offices of the district attorney, public defender and county counsel.

Category Previous Current April,1992 ENTRY LEVEL Grade I--Step I $35,173 $41,580 $49,486 Grade II--Step I 40,789 44,000 52,226 TOP STEP Grade III--Step 12 *63,315 67,778 76,232 Grade IV--Step 12 74,693 80,047 92,426 Senior Attorney none 82,248 94,967 * Entry level is $47,008

Source: Orange County Attorneys Assn.

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