A week after he allegedly pulled down signs belonging to his challenger in the June 3 primary election, Riverside County District Attorney Paul Zellerbach Wednesday withdrew from a scheduled debate with his opponent.
According to the D.A.'s staff, Zellerbach submitted a letter to the Riverside County Bar Association explaining his decision to bow out of the debate with prosecutor Mike Hestrin, set for Friday at the downtown Riverside building, before a full house.
D.A.'s office spokesman John Hall said Zellerbach had given authorization for the media to receive copies of the letter, even though requests to receive a copy directly from the D.A. were denied.
RCBA Director Charlene Nelson subsequently told City News Service that the letter will not be made publicly available.
"The letter was addressed to our president, Jacqueline Carey-Wilson, and she has decided not to release it," Nelson said. "The forum will go ahead as planned, but Mr. Hestrin will be alone. We're in the process of figuring out how we're going to conduct the debate without Mr. Zellerbach."
In reaction to the news that the incumbent will not be making an appearance, Hestrin told CNS that voters "have a right to hear from the D.A., and he has an obligation to answer the public's questions on issues such as increases in the crime rate and his lack of focus on public safety."
"My offer still stands. I will debate him any time and any place, as often as he likes," Hestrin said. "I would remind Mr. Zellerbach that the office belongs to the public, and he should act accordingly."
Zellerbach has been under fire since last Wednesday, when a law enforcement officer said he witnessed the county's top prosecutor kicking over a large Hestrin campaign sign at the intersection of Indio Boulevard and Jefferson Street.
The incumbent was also caught on camera pulling down three smaller Hestrin signs outside a convenience store on Jefferson, just off Interstate 10.
Zellerbach has given conflicting reasons for the first incident, which he has characterized as an accident. He said he was given permission to take down the Hestrin signs at the am/pm store after apparently asking the manager if he could put up one of his own.
The Indio Police Department is investigating, in coordination with the California Attorney General's Office, according to Indio police Chief Richard Twiss.
Zellerbach cut the county a $203 personal check Friday as reimbursement for the miles he put on a county-owned Ford Escape that he was supposed to be using for official business in the Coachella Valley, rather than toting around campaign paraphernalia.
Law enforcement sources have told CNS that the D.A. could -- provided there's sufficient evidence -- potentially face charges ranging from misdemeanor vandalism for tampering with the signs to felony theft of public funds for misusing a county vehicle and engaging in political activity on the county's dime.
– By Paul J. Young, City News Service.