Our Backyard: History Diminished

Contra Costa County selected its first black female district attorney. But the decision was marred by plagiarism and politics.


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Diana Becton.

The Contra Costa County District Attorney’s Office has been plagued for years by scandals, mismanagement, and corruption. And for more than a century and a half, the office has been dominated by a white, old boys network more interested in locking people up than reforming the criminal justice system. In its history, the office had never been led by a woman or an African American.

On Sept. 12, the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors addressed part of the DA’s Office historic shortcomings by selecting Diana Becton, a progressive former judge, as the county’s first black female district attorney. It was a barrier-breaking moment. But it was also diminished by the fact that Becton had plagiarized sections of her application for the job. In fact, in selecting Becton, the supervisors failed to address the other major shortcoming of the CoCo DA’s Office: the lack of trust in it.

The district attorney’s position opened up this summer when the last DA, Mark Peterson, resigned on the day he was charged with corruption. Peterson, in turn, had taken over the office after it was rocked by a bogus rape scandal involving two prosecutors.

Then, the panel of finalists to replace Peterson was riddled with candidates with serious ethical problems: Becton had plagiarized writings by Martin Luther King Jr., U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and others; Assistant District Attorney Tom Kensok also plagiarized sections of his application; and Deputy District Attorney Paul Graves, a law-and-order prosecutor backed by police groups, had been strongly rebuked by the Republican Party for allegedly violating legal ethical standards. These lapses in judgment should’ve disqualified all three candidates from this critically important job. Instead, the supervisors played politics, voting 3-2, in favor of the liberal Becton over the conservative Graves.  

There was one candidate, however, who could have broken up the old boys network and restored integrity to the office: Contra Costa County Judge Danielle Douglas. She’s smart, ethical, empathetic, and committed to reform. But she’s not as liberal as Becton nor as conservative as Graves. In short, she didn’t stand a chance.

But let’s hope she runs for the job next year when it opens up again.

 

Our Backyard is an occasional column by news editor Robert Gammon.

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