Politics & Government

DA candidates battle over campaign ads, donations in heated debate

District attorney candidate Dan Dow suggested Thursday that his opponent, Tim Covello, has been slinging mud by making a major campaign issue out of contributions Dow received from a defense attorney.

But Covello, the county assistant district attorney and one of Dow’s bosses, defended his ads by saying that as a deputy district attorney, Dow should not have taken contributions from a local defense attorney as he battled the attorney in court.

“Everything the District Attorney’s Office does has to be completely above board,” Covello said during a debate sponsored by the San Luis Obispo County Bar Association.

Dow began the debate, held at the Madonna Inn, by addressing Covello’s “horrible negative campaign” and went on to say that Covello was offering misinformation about the donations.

“Dig deeper than what Mr. Covello is telling you,” Dow told the attorneys in the room. “He’s not telling the truth.”

When asked what Covello’s role would be if he were elected, Dow said he initially wanted to keep Covello on staff because of his trial experience. But, he said, because Covello has been “assassinating my character … I’m not certain that’s the sort of person who’d want to stay in the District Attorney’s Office.”

Covello, as assistant district attorney in a management position, can be fired “at will,” while Dow, as a civil servant, cannot.

In answering the same question, Covello said Dow’s contributions “will ultimately be addressed by the state bar,” though he did not say whether he had reported Dow to the bar.

Both Covello and Dow are seeking to succeed Gerry Shea, who opted not to seek re-election. As the county’s top prosecutor, the district attorney investigates, evaluates and prosecutes criminal violations committed within the county.

While the race has been heated since the outset, the intensity has grown since Covello began running ads criticizing Dow for taking money from Arroyo Grande attorney James Murphy.

According to campaign and court records, Dow took donations totaling $5,000 from Murphy while prosecuting a client of Murphy’s in a statutory rape case between Nov. 4 and Dec. 10. During that time, Dow added lesser charges to the case, setting the stage for a possible plea deal.

In January, after Murphy had donated the money, Dow asked to be removed from the case. Another deputy later entered a plea deal, which was approved by Shea and others.

Since the case concluded, Murphy has added more money to Dow’s campaign, Covello noted during the debate — another $18,500, according to financial disclosure forms, for a total of $23,500.

Murphy previously told The Tribune he contributed to Dow’s campaign because he was impressed with Dow’s work in court. Then he criticized Covello for suggesting the donations were inappropriate.

“It’s kind of a reflection of how politics can get dirty,” he told The Tribune in April.

George Hazard, a legal ethics expert at the Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, said the contributions were legal, but they might suggest a conflict of interest in the eyes of the public.

The donations have become a major part of Covello's campaign, with Covello accusing Dow of taking donations from legal opponents. Thursday, Dow said he did the right thing in the statutory rape case, asking to be removed when Murphy’s contributions became significant.

“I didn’t want any appearance — ‘appearance’ — of impropriety,” he said.

But Covello said there was an appearance of impropriety when Dow changed the charges on the case.

“Look at the facts very clearly and look at the timeline,” Covello said. “All of this is in the court records and the campaign records.”

After the debate, Dow provided a transcript from an Oct. 31 hearing — shortly before Murphy’s first contribution on Nov. 4 — showing charges were added then. Dow said those added charges were filed by the court on Nov. 7.

Dow said the changes made to the case could have increased the defendant’s sentence.

The more serious charges against the defendant were later dropped in favor of the lesser new charges that Dow added.

Dow noted that the final plea was approved by Shea, who has endorsed Covello. “If justice is for sale … Mr. Shea sold it,” he said.

But Covello said Dow made the decision to accept Murphy’s money and it was inappropriate.

“You don’t have to take the money,” he said, adding, “Recusing yourself two months later doesn’t make it right.”

After Covello learned that Murphy had donated to Dow’s campaign, Dow said Thursday, Covello solicited money from Murphy as well. Murphy has also told The Tribune that Covello asked him for money. Covello denied that during the debate, saying he has not asked any defense attorney for money, only endorsements.

“I think there’s a conflict of interest even asking the defense bar for money,” Covello said.

While some other issues were discussed during the debate, the candidates spent most of their hour arguing over the contributions in what was the most heated of the five debates held so far.

Dow, who tackled the matter from the outset in Thursday’s debate, vowed to defend his reputation. “If a fight is brought to me, the soldier inside me will get stirred up,” said Dow, who is a veteran.