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Politics, government and public life for Southern California

NAACP Riverside chapter award to DA Zellerbach stirring controversy

Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach will be honored by the local chapter of the NAACP next week, despite alleged ethical lapses.
Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach will be honored by the local chapter of the NAACP next week, despite alleged ethical lapses. Zellerbach for District Attorney

Another NAACP chapter is catching heat for its choice in honorees.

Next week, the organization’s Riverside chapter honors Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach for his work in the area of “law and justice.”  An online program for the $75 per person event doesn’t explain why the group is recognizing Zellerbach. The chapter’s president did not return phone calls.

Zellerbach is a controversial choice because of a series of ethical lapses. The most recent involves allegations Riverside’s top law enforcement officer torn down his opponent’s campaign signs at a busy intersection in the city of Indio.

Indio Police detectives are investigating the April 23 incident, which was caught on videotape, according to department spokesman Benjamin Guitron.

“Mr. Paul Zellerbach is allegedly seen tampering with campaign signage at the intersection of Jefferson Street and Indio Boulevard,” Guitron said. He said investigators are expected to finish their work in the next week, and refer the case to the California State Attorney General’s office.

Police are looking at two incidents that day. One of Zellerbach’s own DA investigators videotaped one incident. The investigator supports Zellerbach’s opponent in the DA’s race, Deputy DA Michael Hestrin.

Security cameras outside an AM/PM gas station captured another incident. Without enhancing the videos, it’s hard to determine the identity of the person seen moving campaign signs.

The Riverside Press-Enterprise reports Zellerbach emailed the paper acknowledging he was involved in the incidents. “On April 23 I made mistakes, which I regret,” the paper quoted the DA as saying. Any charges would likely involve misdemeanor vandalism.

“People are trying to explain to me that the incidents did not rise to the same level as Donald Sterling,” said Basil Kimbrew, an African American activist in Riverside. “But it’s a travesty that they would award the top cop who got caught allegedly stealing signs.”

Three years ago, the Commission on Judicial Performance admonished Zellerbach for making prejudicial statements when he was a Superior Court judge. The judicial watchdog group said Zellerbach improperly criticized the DA’s handling of cases from the bench – as he prepared to run against the DA in the next election.

In 2006, the commission admonished Zellerbach for delaying the reading of a verdict in a murder trial. Zellerbach was at an afternoon Angels playoff game in Anaheim, and postponed proceedings until the next day.  

“Judge Paul Zellerbach violated ethics rules requiring that judges give precedence to their duties above all other matter, dispose of their cases promptly and efficiently, and promote public confidence in the judiciary,” the commission wrote.

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