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Michael D. Bradbury: Balancing the Scales : District attorney: Some say he’s a tough prosecutor. Others say he pushes too hard and uses his office to bring down political foes.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 12 years as Ventura County’s top prosecutor, Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury has come to symbolize law and order in the safest county of its size in the western United States.

He has won a reputation among lawyers and judges as one of the toughest prosecutors in California. Many say he is also one of the most competent.

“As district attorneys go, he’s as good as any of them,” said one former courthouse nemesis, retired Ventura County Public Defender Richard Erwin. “He’s a square shooter and a bright guy and a hard worker.”

Off duty, Bradbury is the very image of a hard-nosed rural prosecutor--a small-town police chief’s son turned lawman, who relaxes on weekends by working cattle on local ranches astride his quarter horse, Vamanos.

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On duty, the silver-haired, blue-eyed Bradbury has built another reputation among top legal and elected officials--as the most powerful politician in Ventura County.

Admirers say Bradbury uses his power fairly, equally tough with friend and foe. But critics accuse the county’s chief law-enforcement figure of occasionally abusing that power against political enemies.

“The general public . . . sees him as this hard-charging crime fighter. And there’s no doubt about it, he’s done some things that were good,” said former Supervisor Madge L. Schaefer, the target of a Bradbury investigation last year.

“There’s more to it than that,” Schaefer said. “He’s a hard-charging crime fighter who pushes and shoves and steps over people, takes credit for things he doesn’t do. Mike’s too good to be true.”

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Despite an administration marked by controversy and complaints from some that he is too stubborn, Bradbury has become increasingly entrenched in office. After a narrow election victory in 1978, no one has even challenged his three reelection bids.

Bradbury retains considerable power within county government, which he demonstrated last week during a budget spat with the Board of Supervisors: While every other department budget was being cut, Bradbury’s emerged with a hefty increase.

For years, speculation has grown that Bradbury has ambitions for higher office. And Bradbury concedes there have been moments when he contemplated running for attorney general or seeking gubernatorial appointment as Los Angeles County district attorney.

But there is no evidence that the conservative Republican prosecutor has ever tried to build a state political organization.

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Even if he did try to leap beyond Ventura County, Bradbury’s past stands in his way. Many of his Republican colleagues remember that he supported Democrat John Van de Kamp in the 1982 attorney general race over GOP member George Nicholson.

He has mended some political fences since then, campaigning hard last year for Gov. Pete Wilson and other statewide Republican candidates. Still, Bradbury’s geographic power base remains small, and his prospects for state office are dim. The last attorney general elected from outside Los Angeles or the San Francisco area was Ulysses S. Webb of Plumas County in 1902.

“A guy like Bradbury’s trapped in probably the highest position he can get in Ventura County,” said one Statehouse insider. “He’s in the classic stroke-of-lightning situation: Only if he’s struck by lightning is he likely to gain enough strength to get into statewide office.”

“I don’t think he has the political ambitions people say he does,” said Peter D. Kossoris, the senior deputy in Bradbury’s office. “He wants to do the right thing and genuinely, from the bottom of his heart, wants to provide quality law enforcement and protection to the public.”

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Bradbury says he has reconciled himself to political reality and abandoned dreams of bigger jobs.

At age 49, he says he has no higher ambition than to be reelected to his $106,600-a-year position in 1994, serve a fifth term and then retire to Northern California to raise quarter horses and maybe volunteer to prosecute cases for the local district attorney.

“I don’t think there is a better job in California than the one I’ve got,” Bradbury said. “I enjoy the intellectual challenge, but I think I’m pretty much a purist: I love to see that big old prison bus pull up, and just fill it up and send dangerous people off to prison. That’s my goal.”

Bradbury unwinds in his off-duty hours by riding herd on cattle ranches like the one in Ojai owned by his old friend, Harold Parker.

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“It’s almost a social event,” Bradbury said. “I work with some old cowboys that are in their 80s, and every time I’m around them, it’s just a wealth of information” about riding and roping, he said.

On occasion, Bradbury rides with friends in equestrian groups such as Rancheros Adolfo, which will be sponsoring a four-day ride on Catalina Island in late May.

Bradbury is a busy man in and out of the office, and professes an enthusiasm for mountain biking almost as strong as his love for his foremost professional goal, which he says is “to put crooks in jail.”

Recently, he took up karate to help work off some extra weight. Bradbury said he had kept himself at about 185 pounds since high school until suffering a touch football injury last year. After ballooning to 215 pounds, he said he is now down to 200 pounds.

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Bradbury has been married twice. His first marriage of almost 26 years to Susan Fullerton ended in divorce in 1989 after the couple had reared two daughters, Tiffany and Alison. He was married to his second wife, Heidi, last July 6.

He will not discuss his marriages or other aspects of his private life. Nor, citing security reasons, will Bradbury describe his car or his home.

“All I can do is tell you I live in the county,” he said.

Much of his public reputation in California is built on his determined--critics say stubborn--refusal to engage in the big-city practice of widespread plea bargaining so common in the courts of Los Angeles and most other large counties.

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Most felony defendants who don’t want to face a trial must plead guilty to the most serious offenses they are charged with and must admit aggravating circumstances, such as prior felony records. Most misdemeanor defendants aiming to avoid a trial must plead guilty to the most serious charge in any case plus at least one-third of the total charges.

The no-plea-bargaining policy triggered legal squabbles over defendants’ rights in the early 1980s and forced the dismissal of dozens of cases when public defenders clogged court calendars by taking every misdemeanor case to trial in protest.

Bradbury, however, beat down the challenge from the public defender’s office. Today, his policy continues to force 12% to 15% of cases to trial in Ventura County, more than twice the California average of 5% to 7%.

Perhaps the most graphic example of Bradbury’s distaste for plea bargaining is the drunk-driving case of Diane Mannes, who struck five youths on the Conejo Grade in 1989, killing three.

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Mannes offered repeatedly to plead guilty to manslaughter.

But Bradbury insisted on prosecuting her on three charges of second-degree murder--even after a jury failed to convict her, a Superior Court judge dismissed the charges, and a U.S. District Court judge ruled that a retrial would be unconstitutional.

After U.S. District Judge A. Wallace Tashima ordered the case dropped on Feb. 7, Bradbury had it appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We’re not going to any greater extremes than we would in any other case where we believed the court had made erroneous rulings,” Bradbury said.

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Bradbury’s position is that his refusal to plea bargain most criminal cases is a major reason why Ventura County has a much lower crime rate than most California counties.

“We are the safest metropolitan area west of Ohio,” he said. “That doesn’t happen by accident.”

Bradbury has often made that claim, and last week, justifying his need for a budget increase during his encounter with the Board of Supervisors, he proclaimed Ventura County the safest in the United States.

In fact, there are about 30 regions of similar size in the nation with lower crime rates, but FBI statistics show Ventura to be the safest county of its size west of Bismarck, N.D.

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George C. Eskin, a veteran Ventura defense attorney and former prosecutor, argues that demographics, not Bradbury’s policy, keeps crime down in Ventura County. It is simply more affluent and “has fewer young, indigent minorities” than Los Angeles County, Eskin said.

Many of Bradbury’s other critics say his posture on plea bargaining is partly designed to enhance his image.

“Mike is perhaps one of the slickest politicians I have seen in a long, long time,” said James M. Farley, a Ventura defense attorney for the past 21 years. “Everything, I think, he does is geared toward image. Everything.”

Bradbury insists his job is “about 95% prosecution-administration and about 5% politics.”

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“If you put first doing what’s right as an office, the politics will take care of themselves,” Bradbury said. “When you start to manipulate things politically, that’s when you’ll get in trouble.”

Some maintain that Bradbury manipulates the political climate, torpedoing political enemies with investigations that never result in prosecution.

In 1986, an unidentified member of the staff of state Sen. Ed Davis (R-Santa Clarita) tipped Bradbury to allegations that supporters of Bobbi Fiedler, then a Republican congresswoman, had offered $100,000 to cover Davis’ campaign debts if he dropped out of the Republican U.S. Senate primary.

Bradbury sent the case to Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner. Although Fiedler’s indictment on felony election violations was thrown out of court, the resulting publicity badly damaged her campaign and that of Davis.

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Paul Clarke, Fiedler’s husband, said Bradbury pressed the case “for political purposes” to help Davis and had “zero” legal reasons to do so.

“We did nothing but get the information to the proper agency,” Bradbury replied angrily. “It’s standard procedure.”

In 1989, Bradbury’s staff investigated allegations that Assemblywoman Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley) had tried to persuade police and judges to erase her daughter’s 27 traffic tickets.

Bradbury issued a report in May of that year confirming the allegations but filed no charges against Wright, who now says she believes Bradbury and Davis were trying to give ammunition to her challenger, Davis aide Hunt Braly, during the 1990 primary.

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Bradbury countered, “She was investigated because she did wrong, and she should have been investigated.”

Former County Supervisor Schaefer said Bradbury helped engineer her November election loss to Maria VanderKolk.

Last year, the county grand jury and Bradbury’s investigators looked into allegations that billionaire developer David H. Murdock influenced county employees, including Schaefer, by doing them favors.

Both well-publicized probes found no wrongdoing by Schaefer.

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Schaefer said of Bradbury, “He wasted thousands of dollars of taxpayer money on a witch hunt that he knew the outcome of before he even started. I think he knew he would hurt me.”

However, political observers have said Schaefer lost partly because of her fiery personality and her support from development interests in the race against VanderKolk, a slow-growth candidate. Schaefer’s refusal to seriously campaign against the 25-year-old political neophyte was another factor, they said.

“I think she needs to look more at her own conduct if she’s trying to find a reason for her election loss,” Bradbury said.

Bradbury said the charges that he is politically ambitious conflict with his investigations of prominent Republicans.

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“See, these are some things these little pundits can’t figure out. On the one hand, I’m such a political animal, but on the other hand, they can’t figure out why I’d cut against that image. People want to force me into their pigeonhole instead of having an open mind.”

In fact, of more than 450 investigations into alleged misconduct by public officials done by Bradbury’s office since 1978, only a handful resulted in charges.

Bradbury said most of the investigations were of alleged government, prosecutorial or police misconduct, which usually turned out to be unfounded. They also included non-criminal investigations that could not result in prosecution, such as prisoner requests for pardons, he said.

However, an experienced trial deputy in Bradbury’s office said, “I think Mike wants to know the answer to things, as opposed to a real prosecutorial reason for getting information.

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“Obviously, if you have the right information, you can take people down without even prosecuting them.

“I’ve heard stories that he does investigations of people and just puts that information away for use at a future time,” said the deputy, who asked not to be identified.

Bradbury dismissed the anonymous charge, saying, “I don’t intend to respond to those shadow people.”

Asked if he felt critics are right to call him stubborn, he sighed, “Oh, probably.”

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Citing the reasons, he said, “Probably having seen a lot in 25 years as a prosecutor, and having a good appreciation for what happens to you in a big bureaucracy if you don’t fight for what you believe in and what you need.”

The road to the district attorney’s desk began in Susanville in Lassen County, Calif., where Michael Don Bradbury grew up surrounded by role models: His father was the Susanville police chief, and his uncle was county sheriff.

In high school, the athletic Bradbury was a member of the football, baseball and track teams, and pursued dreams of law enforcement by prosecuting fellow students in the school’s disciplinary court.

“They included four of my good buddies, who were found drinking beers behind the gym at a dance,” Bradbury said. “I got them banned from the dances for three months. They weren’t very happy about it.”

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With a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Oregon in 1964, Bradbury went to Hastings Law School in San Francisco to earn his law degree.

He considered a career with the FBI but shortly before graduation in 1967 was recruited as a prosecutor by tough, conservative Ventura County Dist. Atty. Woody Deem.

In 1970, Bradbury began a 20-month stint in private practice, which rewarded him financially but left a sour taste.

When the court appointed him to defend a man charged with child molestation and attempted murder, “it just made me realize I’d rather be prosecuting these people than defending them,” he said.

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Bradbury returned to work for Deem, then Dist. Atty. Stanley Trom and rose through the ranks to chief assistant district attorney. When Trom stepped down in 1978, Bradbury ran for Trom’s job.

“I hated it,” he recalled. “I knew nothing about politics, and to ask people for money was absolute anathema to me. And I didn’t do a very good job of it. . . . What motivated me was I loved the job, I loved the work, and I loved it here.”

With 35,314 votes, Bradbury beat the nearest of his four competitors by 503 votes. One of his first acts upon taking office was to hire Ray Sinetar, a respected Los Angeles County prosecutor, who became his chief assistant and drafted his policy against plea bargaining.

Four years later, Sinetar left under a cloud: It spread from a new program of harsh personnel evaluations that Bradbury had asked him to set up, which eventually embroiled the office in acrimonious hearings before the county Civil Service Commission.

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Sinetar said he quit Feb. 6, 1984, of his own volition, after Bradbury misled him by telling him his evaluation contained little criticism from his co-workers, then reading off “an unremitting list of indictments” from them in a closed-door meeting.

Six months later, Sinetar resurfaced at a county Civil Service Commission hearing on another deputy’s complaints about the evaluation procedures.

There, Sinetar was quoted as testifying about his former boss, “He is a man without honor. He is not a truthful person. He is a hypocrite.”

Interviewed recently, Sinetar explained: “I think he took the responsibility of being district attorney seriously.” But he said that Bradbury’s “character flaws” included going back on promises.

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Told of that remark and similar comments from some other lawyers and judges, Bradbury replied: “They’re so insignificant. I’m not going to start responding to that kind of stuff.”

By all accounts, Bradbury keeps a rigid grip on his office. His deputies must check all their filing decisions with supervisors, and supervisors adhere to Bradbury’s wishes.

“I wasn’t elected to give 90 attorneys the discretion to decide how cases should be handled,” Bradbury said.

However, Ventura defense attorney and former prosecutor Chuck Samonsky said Bradbury’s tight reins have sapped the deputies’ morale.

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“They’re unhappy they don’t have any discretion to do anything,” Samonsky said. “They feel like little puppy dogs who can’t make any decisions for themselves.”

Eskin observed, “Mike will surround himself with sycophants, who will tell him what he wants to hear and embrace the party line, rather than allow attorneys the discretion to think for themselves and make their own charging decisions, and I think that’s awful.”

Veteran prosecutor Carol J. Nelson said that the requirement to consult supervisors before making charging decisions “can be very frustrating.”

But she said of the critics, “If you don’t like his policies, just don’t work here.”

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Even with his allies, Bradbury’s dedication to his job can spark conflict.

Sheriff John V. Gillespie, a longtime friend, said he and Bradbury have disagreed “long and loud” over the prosecutor’s desire to gain access to police officers’ statements to superiors during internal investigations--information protected by law from outside scrutiny.

The county’s police chiefs are in accordance with Gillespie, but they also agree that, “with Mike you can disagree without being disagreeable,” said Oxnard Police Chief Robert Owens.

Law enforcement officials in the county are among Bradbury’s strongest supporters.

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Said Gillespie: “I think Mike’s probably one of the best district attorneys in California--the bottom line. Leaving off all the perfumed stuff everybody says, I think he just wants to do his job here.

“And he does it with a little more swagger than many, with a little more bombast than many, but he does his job, and he does it well.”

OFFICE AT A GLANCE

District Attorney: Michael D. Bradbury

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Assistant Dist. Atty.: Colleen Toy White

Chief Deputy Dist. Atty.: Vincent J. O’Neill Jr.

Chief Investigator: Braden McKinley

Staff: More than 365, including 90 deputies

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1990 fiscal year budget: $17,362,900

Misdemeanor cases filed: 24,383

Dismissed: 1,385

Convictions: 298

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Guilty pleas: 19,933

Acquittals: 84

Hung juries: 19

Felony cases filed: 1,869

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Dismissed: 170

Convictions: 177

Guilty pleas: 1,351

Acquittals: 35

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Hung juries: 10

Source: 1990 Calendar Year Vital Statistics

BRADBURY AT A GLANCE

* Born: Feb. 16, 1942, son of Marie and Frederick Bradbury, a utility company employee and the Susanville, Calif., police chief

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* Political affiliation: Republican

* Education: Lassen Union High School, 1960; University of Oregon, bachelor of science degree in history, 1964; Hastings Law School, juris doctor, 1967

* Outside activities: Horseback riding, cattle ranch work, mountain biking, karate, skiing, photography

* Published articles: Plea bargaining, sexual assault, drunk driving and the Rose Bird Supreme Court.

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* Recent reading: “Lonesome Dove” by Larry McMurtry, “American Constitutional Law” by Lawrence H. Tribe and the autobiography “Ronald Reagan: An American Life”

* Quote: “I love to see that big old prison bus pull up, and just fill it up and send dangerous people off to prison.”


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