|Acting City Attorney Wreaks
Vengeance on Butt
September 27, 2004
Less than a week after Tom Butt urged the recruitment and selection of a permanent city attorney as soon as possible, Acting City Attorney Everett Jenkins directed his assistant, Bruce Soublet, to garnish Butt’s meager City Council wages to satisfy a nine-year old judgment of $3,991, plus interest, resulting from a public information disclosure lawsuit Butt brought against the City a decade ago seeking information on the Utility User Tax and Chevron’s unique exemption.
For the full background, see City Officials Threaten to Embarrass Council Member Over Unpaid Judgment,TOM BUTT E-FORUM April 2, 2004.
“It’s not the money,” said Butt, “it’s the principle.” The City Attorney’s Office is just as dysfunctional as the rest of City Hall. They have a huge backlog of uncollected judgments going back a decade or more that they are too lazy or too incompetent to collect. Uncollected debts from the Port of Richmond, alone, were recently estimated at over $800,000. It’s interesting that the only one they have gotten around to acting on is mine”
Butt had already volunteered a 15% reduction in salary as his contribution to the City’s financial crisis, and, unlike some other Council members and City staff, he saved taxpayers thousands of dollars by paying his own way to the last China sister City trip. By garnishing his wages the City will get 25% and a few hundred dollars a month more from Butt but will lose many times that by the free spending habits of others.
Bad legal advice, failure to show up in court and failure to respond to complaints has cost the City millions over the last few years. Just recently, Jenkins recommended settling for $150,000 of taxpayer money a lawsuit brought against the City by City Council candidate Andres Soto. Jenkins refused to take any action against the parties actually responsible for the acts and had previously failed to take any other action that would have mitigated the damage. Now, the City is out $150,000 in money it doesn’t have.
Soublet was a puzzling choice to play the hatchet man. He has a reputation around City Hall for seldom showing up for work and spending long lunch hours with Human Resources Director Cedric Williams at the Hotel Mac paid for by taxpayers through City credit cards. Based on past credit card receipts submitted by Williams, Butt’s monthly payments will not even support Williams’ and Soublet’s gourmet dining style.
A bright spot in the City Attorney’s Office, however, is Assistant City Attorney Adriana Quintero, who was featured in a Contra Costa Times September 26 article “City Finds Way to Close Drug Havens.” Ironically, Quintero, who has a work ethic that contrasts sharply with that of Jenkins and Soublet, is being harassed by Jenkins for working too hard and making the rest of the office look bad. She is the only attorney in the office who cares enough to get out of bed to provide the legal backup for a midnight drug bust, and she is actually making real money for the City. The story follows:
City finds way to close drug havens
RICHMOND - Sgt. Shawn Pickett used to come here all the time. He remembers those days without much nostalgia.
"They were dealing out of the garage. This was usually open," said Pickett, pointing to a door encased in gray plywood and buttressed by a layer of windblown garbage. "People would pull up. They would either walk out, or the buyer would come in. 'What you need?'"
The crack house at 1415 Garvin Ave. folded last year, but not under the weight of any criminal investigation. Police rousted loiterers, confiscated guns and drugs, and arrested tenants. But they never found evidence to prosecute anyone. That is, until last summer.
That's when the city began treating the landlord like a crack lord.
"I called him up and told him he needed to clean up his property, or the city was going to sue him," assistant city attorney Adriana Quintero said. "We're trying to get the message across to landlords that allowing their tenants to deal drugs is unacceptable, and it will cost them."
After decades of largely ineffective efforts to shutter drug houses, city officials have begun bringing landlords of suspect properties to civil court, seeking heavy fines, forced evictions and court orders to keep rentals vacant for as long as one year.
Dozens of plywood-sealed dwellings in the city's most notorious drug-dealing spots attest to the effect. Since shutting down 1415 Garvin in July 2003, the city has won more than $750,000 in civil judgments against owners of other alleged drug houses, of which it has collected about $80,000.
"Civil action gets us more bang for our buck than the criminal justice system," Richmond Police Chief Charles Bennett said. "Especially when we're dealing with out-of-city landlords who essentially condone illegal activity on their properties so long as they get the rent check. This is an effective way of dealing with that end of the issue." Only the husk of a crack house remains on Garvin, contributing tall weeds, boarded windows and a sagging fence to the block's bombed-out look. Innards of an apartment peek through ruined walls three doors down, juxtaposed against the rows of warm sunflowers planted by new neighbors.
Vice detectives started sharing the results of drug raids and sting operations with Quintero in 2003. While not always sufficient for criminal prosecution, such evidence builds strong foundations for public-nuisance suits in civil court, where the burden of proof is lower.
Success in that partnership led to creation of the Drug Abatement Response Team this year. DART includes police, public works, the city attorney's office and code enforcement officials who clean up and monitor problem houses and ensure owners comply with court orders.
That's good news for Irene Garcia, who for months lived beside what police described as a brothel at 619 Chanslor Ave., sandwiched between Lincoln Elementary School at one end of the block and Gompers Continuation High School at the other.
"They would sell drugs, prostitution. It was awful. ... I feel good that they are gone," Garcia said. "Many boys and girls walk past here every day."
Three months ago, a Contra Costa Superior Court judge ordered owners Ermaline and Russell Wallace and any tenants to leave the weathered two-story house until June 2005, and the Russells were ordered to pay more than $30,000 in fines and attorney fees.
A few sickly thin regulars still shuffled around the neighborhood on a recent hot September afternoon, but nowhere near Garcia's front porch. The empty building next door needs a few coats of paint, but at least the plywood on the doors and windows matches the siding.
"It's much better now," Garcia said. "They used to stand around out there -- day and night."
But not everyone appreciates the city's heavy-handed tactics. A few blocks away, a former resident of 133 South Fifth St. bridles at the suggestion his brother's home was a crack den.
"It was boarded up over being a health hazard, not because of drugs. You show me one time where the Richmond Police Department found drugs," Cleo Thomas said. "All those raids, all those warrants. They never found nothing. They might have arrested people for parole violations, but not drugs."
The house sits beside a vacant lot notorious in the neighborhood both for its loitering junkies and the filthy heaps of garbage and human waste that covered it. Water to the house had been shut off for some time when the owner finally agreed to board the doors and windows.
"With these houses, we often find serious code violations in addition to the drug problems," said Pickett, surveying the cleaned up lot. "So we end up with a property that's a public nuisance both ways."
Richmond's landlord suits often spin off from police narcotics investigations that end without convictions or even charges for tenants.
While detectives often collect enough evidence to arrest suspects or obtain a search warrant, the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard for a criminal conviction means suspects often go free or receive light sentences.
"We might find dope or guns, but proving who they belong to can be difficult," Richmond vice Detective Darren Monahan said. "There are people going in and out of those places all day."
But the discovery of drugs is sufficient to declare a building a public nuisance under state law. Armed with such evidence, Quintero estimates she has fired off more than 75 letters to property owners during the past year demanding they fix the problem or face a lawsuit.
About two dozen fought the city unsuccessfully, Quintero said. In those cases, the city typically collects a $25,000 fine, bills the property owner for cleanup costs and receives an injunction forcing the landlord to evict their tenants and leave the property vacant for a year.
Most landlords avoid court by voluntarily removing code enforcement violations, evicting their tenants and, in many cases, by agreeing to shutter their buildings. That's what the landlord of 1415 Garvin Ave. did.
"He said he hadn't been there in five years," Quintero said. "So according to him, it wasn't his problem."
Michael Lyon learned differently. Attorney Aaron Feldman said Lyon was startled to learn that his longtime rental property was the focus of police attention.
Quintero called about the house one month after someone shot and killed 33-year-old Dung Anh Pham inside his car out front in December 2002. Though that crime remains officially unsolved, police said at the time they suspected a link to drug activity at the house.
Lyon voluntarily evicted his tenant. The house has sat empty since. Feldman said his client is selling it.
"I understand what the city was trying to do ... be very aggressive about this," Feldman said. "From my perspective, Mike Lyon, the property owner, got himself in a situation where he had a little old lady for a tenant, and it turned into a nightmare situation."