Last November, on the same day Gerry Shea made a surprise announcement that he wasn’t going to seek another term as district attorney, Dan Dow asked Tim Covello if he would walk with him to the Blackhorse coffee shop.
During the walk, Dow dropped a bomb. “I’ve decided — after giving it much thought and much discussion with my colleagues — that I’m going to run for district attorney,” he told Covello.
Covello, the office’s second in command as assistant district attorney and presumed successor to Shea, was taken aback.
“I was surprised,” Covello said later.
Yet few of the other prosecutors in the office were. Because — unbeknownst to Covello — Dow and other deputy district attorneys had worked for months, staging what one local defense attorney has called a “palace coup,” an organized effort to topple top management and play a significant role in choosing its own leader.
“I wouldn’t call it a coup,” said Covello, who announced his plans to run for DA roughly three weeks later. “I do think it’s a very well orchestrated and executed political plan — clearly — because everything was in place. And it’s clear that the same political plan was going to be waged against Gerry if he stayed.”
In a county that rarely features a contested DA’s race — let alone a close one — suddenly the upcoming election was the talk of the courthouse.
“Everybody loves a good soap opera,” said Michael Latner, an associate professor of political science at Cal Poly. While more candidates could surface before the March 12 filing deadline, so far it’s set up to be an unprecedented internal battle.
“The novelty of the race itself will bring some attention to it,” Latner said.
In the 65 years that span Shea’s lifetime, there have been only five contested DA’s races in San Luis Obispo County. None of those featured more than one candidate from the DA’s office, and only one election was close.
In 1950, incumbent Herbert Grundell — who would later become known for participating in the inquest of actor James Dean’s death — defeated Atascadero attorney Robert Wright by a slim 118 votes.
“In large counties, like L.A. and San Francisco, the DA is a high-profile position,” Latner said. “But unless there is a case that generates a lot of public attention, voters are not likely to know much about what goes on in the SLO DA’s office.”
At the same time, he said, the office is an important one.
“The prosecution policy of the DA shapes the legal environment in which we live considerably,” he said. “From drug policy and the regulation of marijuana, which is likely to change soon, to the investigation and prosecution of sexual violence, fraud and the full spectrum of state and local laws, the DA shapes our legal and ethical standards as a community.”
Typically, local incumbent DAs win unopposed, no one daring to fight a seemingly unwinnable battle. Occasionally, incumbents die or retire mid-term, prompting a temporary successor to be appointed. As Shea reached his mid-60s, those in his office began to suspect the latter might occur.
“I believed, and many of my colleagues believed, that he was either going to retire or he was going to run and then retire after a year or so and hand the office to his hand-picked successor, Tim Covello,” Dow said. “Gerry’s been here for a long time, and he would like to hand-pick his successor. Fortunately, the voters get to decide.”
Behind the scenes
Having prosecuted the biggest cases over the past 15 years, Covello seemed to outsiders like a shoo-in to head the office, which has a budget of roughly $15 million and close to 100 employees.
Yet, behind the scenes, some of the deputies under him began recruiting an alternative candidate because they didn’t like Covello’s management style. Several who were approached weren’t up for the challenge. But Dow — an Army veteran who once ran unsuccessfully for state Assembly — stepped up.
While that set up a potentially awkward meeting with the boss, Dow said he believed it was best for the morale of the office.
“We were concerned — myself and a lot of my colleagues — about the future of the office and future leadership,” he said. “Many of us want to be here 15 or 20 years and know we will. And we want to have a place we know is doing great work for the county and continues to have good teamwork within the office. Good teamwork happens when you have good leadership.”
Shea, who has led the office since 1998, decided not to run again if the race were contested.
“I had anticipated running,” he said. “I felt that I had a good administration team in place. And if it were uncontested, I intended to do that.”
While Shea said he had no plans to hand over his job mid-term, his respect for Covello is no secret, which explains why Shea assigned him the biggest cases and appointed him assistant district attorney. Shea has also endorsed Covello.
“He’s good at research, and he’s excellent at oral argument,” Shea said. “I think of him as one of the best litigators in our office over the last 30 years.”
In the courtroom, Covello has appeared confident and unshaken even when handling the county’s most high-profile murder cases. Not only did those cases garner much publicity, they also featured complex legal issues.
In the Peter Derks case, he handled the county’s first major cold case, which required getting 20-year-old evidence admitted in court. In the Dystiny Myers murder trial, he prosecuted five defendants in what began as a death penalty case. And in the Rex Krebs double-murder trial, he dealt with thousands of documents related to change of venue, capital punishment, DNA evidence and the defendant’s confession, which the defense tried to suppress.
“We were at the court of appeal on more than one occasion,” he said of the Krebs case. “People are taking writs, which are pre-trial appeals, and even petitions to the California Supreme Court, and in that case even one writ to the U.S. Supreme Court. Those cases raise virtually every constitutional issue one has to face.”
All the defendants in those cases were convicted of murder. Krebs received the death penalty.
Cindy-Marie Absey, who retired from the Victims and Witness Assistance division of the DA’s office in December, worked with Covello on the Krebs case.
“Tim worked tirelessly on that case and was very sensitive to the loss that the families of those girls suffered,” Absey said. “I knew then where his heart lay.”
Absey, the former director who worked under three DAs in her 30-year career, acknowledged that Dow also had a sensitive case load, but said she believes he lacks the managerial experience and institutional knowledge.
“Tim is of keen intelligence, but he’s also a passionate person and a sensitive person and I think that comes through to victims,” she added. “His work ethic is unparalleled.”
Covello’s biggest attribute, insiders say, is his experience, having been a local prosecutor for 21 years. “I’ve learned an enormous amount every year I’ve been here,” Covello said, citing the complex legal issues he’s dealt with.
A case for Dow
In Dow’s eight years as a deputy DA, he said, he has been involved in hundreds of felony cases, many involving difficult sex crimes. While his website lists several cases that ended with lengthy prison terms, he hasn’t had the high-profile cases or complex trial experience that Covello has.
But that doesn’t make him less qualified to lead, said Dow, an Army veteran and currently a major in the California Army National Guard, who began his career as a tech industry salesman.
“I think everybody recognizes Tim’s a great lawyer,” Dow said. Yet, he added, “We’re not just giving a reward to somebody who handled a big high-profile case. That’s not the way a DA should be selected.”
Having been chief deputy and now assistant district attorney for the past six years, Covello is the sole candidate with management experience. In that role, he has recruited and hired staff, supervised writs and appeals and been involved in budget oversight. But it’s Covello’s management experience that is problematic for the deputies, who complain that he’s not approachable, micromanages and doesn’t respect their judgment.
Andy Cadena, one of the office’s 29 deputy district attorneys and president of the San Luis Obispo County Government’s Attorneys Union, wouldn’t substantiate any of those claims, but rather said Dow is widely viewed by his colleagues in the office as a consensus-builder.
“Dan’s willing to unite the office through hard work,” Cadena said. “And not just that — he’s genuine. With Dan, what you see is what you get.”
Covello said some of the complaints he’s heard about his management style have prompted self-reflection and analysis. Yet, he added, the deputies have formed bonds, particularly as they have collectively sued the county over pension contributions.
“When you are in a job that I’ve been in the last six years, and you are the elected district attorney, everybody can’t be your buddy anymore because you have to hold people accountable, “ Covello said.
“I think if you were to ask anybody probably in any field, they would say that they like 100 percent autonomy. But that’s not how a district attorney’s office should ever function.”
The office break room features an espresso machine Dow had when he served in Iraq. Whenever he needs to talk to someone — a detective, defense attorney or fellow deputy — he likes to chat over coffee. And when he talks with people, he said, he listens to their ideas.
“Ultimately, the decision-making process is better when it’s informed,” he said. But, he added, as in the military, “Ultimately, a commander has to make a decision.”
So far, 23 deputies in the office have endorsed Dow, four have chosen to remain neutral and two are new hires. None have endorsed Covello.
In the endorsement battle, Covello — who has previously vied to be a judge on numerous occasions — has garnered the support of several local police chiefs while Dow has picked up the endorsements of several local police associations.
In a race that doesn’t feature clear political differences, said Latner, the Cal Poly professor, endorsements can carry weight — especially in a primary election, which typically draws fewer voters.
“Personal networks are obviously going to play an important role,” he said.
According to a number of defense lawyers with long-established practices on the Central Coast, both candidates are tough opponents in the courtroom.
Longtime attorney Jeff Stein recently donated $500 to Dow’s campaign and said that one of the deciding factors was Dow’s work starting the Veterans Treatment Court.
“The absolute truth is that he created Vets Court out of nothing,” Stein said. “If Dan had not been there, it would not have happened.”
The court, which sees roughly 30 defendants a month, offers treatment to veterans whose crimes might be related to emotional issues caused by their military service. Dow, who worked for 18 months as a civilian to help establish the court, said Shea and Covello were slow to back it.
“There was no support from management for the Veterans Treatment Court,” Dow said. “And yet, in my opinion, there was zero political downside. … It’s going to address some Americans that went off to war healthy and came back broken, and that’s what caused them to get involved in the criminal justice system.”
Covello said questions had to be asked about the court — including how it might impact victims — which Dow might have misinterpreted as a lack of support.
“When you do a collaborative court like that, you do address lots of issues,” he said.
“You have to ask lots of questions: Can you staff it? Are the numbers significant enough to justify having that?” he said. “Simply addressing those questions is not somehow challenging the process — it’s actually part of the collaborative process.”
While some say the office environment is becoming increasingly awkward, neither Dow nor Covello say the internal battle has impacted day-to-day operations.
“I think having two candidates from within an office has the potential to go pretty bad,” Covello said. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen here, and I think that says a lot about the people in our office.”
Dow said things are going smoothly because most people in the office are in agreement. “Because most of my colleagues are supporting me, there’s not much division in the office,” he said.
The District Attorney is elected to a 4-year term with an annual salary of $190,964
Here are bios of the two men:
• Age: 52
• Birthplace: Roseville, CA
• Current position: Assistant district attorney of San Luis Obispo County
• Most previous job: Chief deputy district attorney of San Luis Obispo County
• Family (name of wife, number and ages of children): wife Sue; two daughters, 19 and 17
• Four favorite achievements: Successfully prosecuting 12 defendants for murder; successfully litigating in the California Court of Appeal, California Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court; helping establish drug court, SLO County’s first treatment court, in 1996; being part of the district attorney executive leadership team that has supervised the successful prosecution of more than 85,000 criminal cases in the last 6 years
• Favorite book: “six nonlectures,” by e e cummings (gift of high school coach and teacher)
• Favorite apps: What's App (so I can talk to my daughter in Spain for free)
• Age: 43
• Birthplace: Gloucester, Mass.
• Current position: Deputy district attorney (SLO)
• Most previous job: Deputy district attorney (Riverside)
• Family: Wife Wendy; two children, a daughter, 9, son, 7
• Four favorite achievements: Obtaining life sentences for very serious child abuse and domestic violence cases; starting San Luis Obispo County Veterans Treatment Court; deploying to Iraq and Kosovo; becoming fluent in Korean language as a Defense Language Institute distinguished graduate
• Favorite book: “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” C.S. Lewis
• Favorite apps: Facebook and Crime Finder