Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach and one of his managers were allegedly witnessed Wednesday tearing down a campaign sign belonging to his opponent in the district attorney's race, prompting an investigation by Indio police.
"A complaint was received, and we're gathering our information now," Indio police spokesman Ben Guitron told City News Service.
District Attorney's Office Public Information Officer John Hall released a statement saying, "We have been informed that the Indio Police Department has been made aware of the allegations, and we have no further comment at this time."
Sources told City News Service that shortly before 10 a.m., Zellerbach and his assistant, Ricardo Rubio, were seen planting a campaign sign for the incumbent -- then summarily knocking down a large Mike Hestrin campaign sign at the intersection of Indio Boulevard and Jefferson Street, where multiple signs are placed during any given election year.
A law enforcement officer in an unmarked vehicle observed the alleged activity, stopped nearby and went over to confront the suspects, one of whom he immediately recognized as Zellerbach, said Riverside Sheriffs' Association President Robert Masson, who spoke on behalf of the unnamed officer at his request.
"The Hestrin sign was planted firmly in the ground," Masson said. "He said Zellerbach pushed the sign several times until he successfully knocked the sign over. He left it there on the ground. The officer confronted Mr. Zellerbach and his companion, telling them that he saw what they had done."
According to Masson, Zellerbach immediately retreated to the county- owned Ford Escape compact SUV that he and Rubio were using and shut the door, "leaving Mr. Rubio to pick up the Hestrin sign and try to put it back."
The officer walked back to his vehicle and pulled out his camera phone, videotaping the tail-end of the encounter, which appears to show Rubio trying to re-erect the sign, according to images shown to City News Service.
Guitron said the officer arrived at the Indio Police Department lobby around noon to file a formal complaint of "tampering with a campaign sign," in which Zellerbach is named as the suspect.
"This officer would not make something like this up," Masson told City News Service. "I know him on a professional level, and he's very reliable, very credible."
Masson, a longtime sheriff's investigator, expressed dismay that the county's top prosecutor would allegedly behave in such a way.
"This is not what you expect from a leader," he told City News Service. "Mr. Zellerbach has tarnished the office badly. You can't go around doing things like this and have the confidence of the public. I think he should step down."
A veteran prosecutor who asked not to be identified told City News Service that she was "embarrassed" after learning of the allegations.
"It's indicative of a lack of leadership," the deputy district attorney said. "Here's a man who has made a point of reminding us all not to engage in any type of political activity on a workday, and he's out kicking down signs in the middle of a Wednesday morning? It's really pathetic."
Hestrin, who was contacted after work hours, told CNS that he was "incredibly disappointed" by the alleged misconduct.
"It's hard to believe Mr. Zellerbach would do something like this," Hestrin said. "When you consider all that's happening in Riverside County, the sitting D.A. has better things to do on county time, in a county vehicle."
It remained unclear why Zellerbach was in the Coachella Valley and not at his Riverside headquarters.
Under state law, a person can be charged with misdemeanor vandalism for destroying or damaging real or personal property valued at less than $400.
— By Paul J. Young, City News Service.