Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach was publicly admonished by the California Commission on Judicial Performance for what it described as multiple ethics violations committed while he was a Superior Court judge.
In an eight-page decision, the commission cited instances in which Zellerbach made “disparaging” comments about the District Attorney’s Office during a hearing over which he was presiding and instances of improper fundraising practices related to his campaign for district attorney.
Zellerbach did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
According to the commission, Zellerbach, who served on the bench from 2000 until the end of 2010, violated provisions of around a half-dozen canons in the California Code of Judicial Ethics.
The first transgression occurred in March 2009, during a hearing in an embezzlement case. According to the report, Zellerbach made comments about the D.A.’s Office, then headed by Rod Pacheco, that were “disparaging, undignified and discourteous.”
The hearing was on a discovery motion by attorneys for Holly Ann Gunnette, who was charged with financial elder abuse and other allegations stemming from her handling of retirement accounts for two clients in their 90s.
The Jurupa Valley woman’s attorneys were seeking documents connected with her work as Pacheco’s treasurer years earlier, while he was still serving in the state Assembly.
Zellerbach questioned prosecutors’ response to the discovery request, prompting Deputy District Attorney Mike Silverman to reply, “What you may want to have done as a prosecutor isn’t what is necessarily required of me,” according to the commission report.
“Judge Zellerbach responded, `I know. I am faced with that issue all the time in the D.A’s office, unfortunately’ … Mr. Silverman replied, `What do you mean by unfortunately, your honor?’
Judge Zellerbach responded: `Not doing their job properly,”’ according to the commission narrative. Zellerbach later acknowledged that the “comments should not have been made,” the report stated.
At the same hearing, Zellerbach referred to the D.A.’s Executive Office as a “PR firm,” leading Silverman to reply that the district attorney did not have a public relations firm. Zellerbach answered, “Oh yeah, you do,” according to the report.
At the time, Pacheco had come under scrutiny for having an executive staff numbering more than a dozen people, including three public information officers.
Zellerbach told the commission that the “PR” reference did not originate with him.
“Even so, this does not justify the judge’s use of a disparaging label in reference to a party appearing before the judge,” the commission’s report says.
The commission also found that Zellerbach erred during the hearing by not disclosing his desire to run against Pacheco in the June 2010 election, which might have been grounds for the judge’s disqualification from the case, taking into account the prior relationship between Pacheco and Gunnette.
Her case was dismissed in August 2010 at the request of the California Attorney General’s Office, which assumed responsibility for prosecution after the D.A.’s office declared a conflict of interest. The reason for the dismissal was her out-of-court settlement with the alleged victims.
On March 26, 2009, Zellerbach addressed members of the Riverside County Deputy District Attorneys Association, advising his audience to hold off on endorsing a candidate in the following year’s D.A. race. The then-judge also pointed to the negative press Pacheco had received and “described how the office used to run when he worked there as compared to how the office was reportedly being run at the time,” according to the report.
The commission’s report says Zellerbach “gave the appearance that he was opposing a candidate for nonjudicial office” — an ethical breach.
According to the report, Zellerbach first sought an endorsement for his candidacy more than a week before he declared he was running, another impropriety.
Zellerbach took a leave of absence from the bench while he was campaigning, returning to his official duties the day after the election, on June 9, 2010. He had an outstanding campaign debt of more than $200,000 at the time, according to the commission.
The election campaign sought contributions to amortize the debt. Zellerbach allowed his judicial title and photos showing him in his robe to be used in email solicitations, including an invitation to “join Judge Paul Zellerbach, our District Attorney-Elect, for the Retire the Debt Fundraiser,”
the report states.
All post-election fundraisers highlighted Zellerbach’s position as a judge. According to the commission, it was fine for him to advertise his title while on leave, but doing so after the election was in direct violation of a judge’s obligation not to use his “judicial title to advance the pecuniary or personal interests of the judge or others.”
The commissioners considered prior incidents of misconduct in arriving at a decision on whether to issue a public admonishment. The report pointed to a 2006 reprimand Zellerbach received for being at an Angels baseball game when a jury in a murder case over which he was presiding returned with a verdict.
In 2003, the then-judge received an “advisory letter” from the commission over “harsh comments” he directed at a doctor who delayed proceedings in a case due to his tardiness.
The commissioners voted 9-1, with one abstention, in favor of an admonition.