The election for Alameda County district attorney heated up this month when one candidate, civil rights attorney Pamela Price, criticized the incumbent, Dist. Atty. Nancy O'Malley, for accepting a controversial campaign contribution.
The donation in question: $10,000 from the Fremont police union that O'Malley accepted in November, when her office was investigating three members of the union for their roles in two separate fatal shootings. O'Malley's office cleared one of the police officers of wrongdoing the following month. The other two officers, including the union's president, were then cleared in February for their role in the fatal shooting of a pregnant teenager. They were never charged.
Price called O'Malley's decision to take the contribution "disturbing," saying it created an appearance of impropriety.
Regardless of whether there was an actual conflict of interest, the story illustrates why the public needs access to campaign finance data for prosecutors.
District attorneys are arguably the most powerful actors in the criminal justice system. Their decisions — which crimes to prioritize, what charges to bring, whether to offer plea bargains — are essentially unreviewable. The only real check on their power is the ballot box.
So if a district attorney is receiving campaign contributions from people who are under criminal investigation, it is important that voters know.
But Californians are at a disadvantage when it comes to holding their district attorneys accountable. Although state law requires candidates to file campaign finance reports, it leaves the dissemination of that information up to individual counties. Many California counties don't make the reports readily available.
Most other states do. In fact, California is one of only 11 states that does not make the information available on a central, state-run website.
New York, for example, has put all campaign finance information for its candidates in a searchable database available to the public. Journalists have made good use of it. Reports surfaced late last year that the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., accepted contributions from lawyers for the Trump Organization while his office was investigating Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. for fraud. Vance decided not to bring charges against them, and he since has faced considerable criticism for that decision.
Some California counties have made campaign finance reports available, including Alameda, Fresno, San Diego and San Francisco. Indeed, it is likely that the police union's donation to O'Malley came to light because the information is readily available in Alameda County. (In Los Angeles, campaign finance information is available only on the county clerk's website.)
Many other counties haven't. Campaign finance records for more than half of the district attorneys up for reelection in California this year are only partially available online or not at all. The websites for Glenn County and Sutter County, where district attorneys have been accused of misconduct in recent years, do not even tell voters whether they can obtain campaign finance information.
It should be easy for all voters to find out who is donating to the political campaigns of their prosecutors. California should follow the lead of New York and other states and make this information available on a state-run website.
We certainly hope that California's district attorneys do not have any unsavory information in their campaign finance reports. We hope, for instance, that no defense attorneys have made contributions to prosecutors in order to gain access and negotiate better outcomes for their clients.
Either way, Californians deserve to know. As the race in Alameda County makes clear, it's not safe to assume that all contributions are beyond reproach. Only with full access to campaign finance information can Californians hold their district attorneys accountable and preserve the legitimacy of their criminal justice system.
Carissa Byrne Hessick is a professor of law at the University of North Carolina and director of the Prosecutors and Politics Project. Alison Rossi is a law student at the University of North Carolina and a researcher at the Prosecutors and Politics Project.