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California DA's association asks state attorney general for probe of its own finances

Sacramento Bee logoSacramento Bee 3/6/2021 Sam Stanton, The Sacramento Bee

Mar. 5—The California District Attorneys Association asked California's attorney general Friday to open an investigation into the group's own accounting practices, saying an internal review has determined more than $1 million in asset forfeiture funds may have been spent improperly.

Greg Totten, the new chief executive officer of the Sacramento-based association, said in a letter to the Attorney General's Office that more than $1.2 million in asset forfeiture funds and another $406,984 in high-tech funds the association received had improperly been used for general fund expenses rather than for training as required.

Totten asked in the letter for the attorney general's office to "promptly open and conduct a thorough investigation into the improper use of asset forfeiture and high-tech funds by CDAA staff."

In an interview Friday, Totten said there was no indication of "intentional malfeasance" involving the funds, but that the money involved was restricted as to how it could be used and instead was spent on general CDAA expenses.

"The problem is one of accounting," said Totten, who left his post as Ventura County district attorney to take over CDAA in January. "It's an accounting practice that's not appropriate."

The Friday letter from CDAA came after Acting Chief Assistant Attorney General Edward Ochoa sent CDAA a four-page letter Thursday saying the AG's office remains "deeply concerned" about CDAA's accounting practices and an audit last year that found the association may also have misspent more than $2.8 million in restricted environmental funds.

That money also went toward CDAA general expenses, a practice that CDAA President Vern Pierson, the El Dorado County district attorney, said in December dated back to 2004.

"These actions by CDAA, an organization composed of prosecutors, and which has served a critical role in providing training to the law enforcement community, only serve to undermine the public's trust in our governmental officials and institutions," Ochoa wrote, adding that CDAA has indicated its board "will be considering adopting additional (corrective) measures by the summer of 2021."

"This is too late," Ochoa wrote. "We strongly urge CDAA's governing board to act swiftly to implement all necessary measures and internal controls and to ensure full compliance with applicable accounting and reporting requirements, including the proper use and management of restricted funds."

Ochoa wrote that "in light of the disturbing and significant problems" revealed by last year's audit "our office will not direct further funding from settlement proceeds to CDAA until we see concrete actions by the board and the organization that give us confidence the CDAA has implemented measures and controls to appropriately manage restricted funds and taken the necessary steps for timely repayment of the $2.88 million with interest."

Totten said accounting reports did not disclose the practice of diverting the funds to other uses and that it was first reported by staff last year.

"It is very troubling that former staff members appear to have prepared and submitted reports to the Association's independent, annual auditor and the board of directors that did not disclose these accounting practices," he said in his letter. "The board and I ordered these practices to immediately cease and implemented appropriate safeguards to prevent any similar future actions.

"No one is more angry and disappointed than the board and myself that these actions occurred. A satisfactory resolution is our highest priority, and we are committed to restoring these funds."

Totten, part of the statewide team that prosecuted Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo last year, said he wanted the investigation because as prosecutors "we want to be fully transparent about it."

He would not say who should be investigated, citing personnel reasons, but his letter makes clear that he met with AG officials last month, and that the issue led to the departure of CDAA staff.

"As was discussed at the February 17 meeting, the accounting practices identified in the audit were the catalyst for a change in management at the association," the letter states. "Your knowledge of this staff change may be relevant because a former member of CDAA's management is now employed by your office."

An online state employee directory lists CDAA's former chief executive officer, Mark Zahner, as working at the state Department of Justice.

Zahner did not respond to an email request for comment Friday.

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