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In a debate this week, the city attorney candidates revisited an explosive 2014 case in which the city attorney’s office argued a victim was at fault in her own sexual assault. Mara Elliott initially said if the city’s claim was true, “it needed to be stated,” but later said the city’s argument was inappropriate and that victim-blaming is never OK.
Before I moderated a debate this week between the two city attorney candidates, the two groups hosting the event sent me a long list of proposed questions – covering everything from homelessness to drone regulations.
There was only one question of my own I was desperate to ask.
When I think about the San Diego city attorney’s office, one case comes to mind.
In late 2013, the city attorney’s office was in the midst of defending the city against a lawsuit filed by a woman known as Jane Doe. Doe was one of the victims of ex-SDPD officer Anthony Arevalos, who was convicted of criminal charges related to sexual assault and battery.
As it tried to limit the city’s payout, the city attorney’s office made a bizarre argument the sharp-eyed Greg Moran at the U-T spotted: It was actually Doe who was in the wrong the night Arevalos assaulted her, because she had given him her underwear in order to get out of a DUI charge. She bribed a police officer, the city said in court papers.
City attorneys retracted that argument almost immediately after it was criticized in the media.
So, I asked Mara Elliott and Robert Hickey, the candidates vying to take over the office that briefly suggested a crime victim was responsible for her own sexual assault, where do you draw the line between defending the city at all costs, and still acting in a professional way that the people who elect you can be proud of?
Hickey answered first. He recognized that as a deputy district attorney, his current job is more straightforward: He’s “beholden to one thing – the truth,” he said. A city attorney, on the other hand, is beholden to a client, the city. Still, he said, victim-blaming isn’t even good legal strategy.
“Doing something like that – trying to shame a victim – does not serve your client. It hurts your client. It hurts your case. It hurts your image,” Hickey said. “So it’s important to strike that balance, not to cross that line or frankly even come close to that line.”
While Hickey emphasized the big-picture view of balancing the client’s needs with the city’s image, Elliott took a more narrow approach: You defend your client, period.
“As a former litigator of employment matters, the way it would work is, we are bound to protect our client. And that is, in that case, a police officer,” she said. “And you put out the best defense you can put out. And if that was a true statement, it needed to be stated. If, however, it was false, of course we shouldn’t be advocating for somebody to propose something that is false.”
I was stunned. “You put out the best defense you can put out” sure sounds a lot like a stamp of approval for the city’s argument, as does “if that was a true statement, it needed to be stated” – but since Elliott seemed to indicate she wasn’t very familiar with the case, I followed up.
So do you agree with the initial argument that was made, or do you agree with the decision to pull it?
“Having pulled it? I think I would have to review that case. I’m always concerned if it appears, as you described, that it’s a response to the media,” she said. “Because I think that ethically we owe our response to the client – to the taxpayers, as represented through our mayor and City Council. So I do not know the logic that went behind that.”
I followed up with Elliott’s campaign, to see whether her reaction changed once she had a chance to familiarize herself with the case. (That she wasn’t already familiar with is itself a bit strange – it was a highly publicized moment in a highly publicized case handled by the office where she works and that she’s seeking to lead.)
Here’s what Dan Rottenstreich, Elliott’s campaign manager, told me after he said Elliott had reviewed the case:
“The city has a legal obligation to defend police officers, and Mara will defend the city relentlessly. But she also believes it is never appropriate to blame the victim. And this argument was not appropriate, and it was wrong,” he said.
Rottenstreich said that was consistent with Elliott’s answer Monday night – she hadn’t known the details of the case at the time, and once she studied them, she determined the city’s initial argument was irresponsible.
There was one piece of her answer, I told him, that still made me uncomfortable. Doesn’t “if that was a true statement, it needed to be stated” suggest that there are circumstances in which the city could get away with shaming a sexual assault victim – say, if they could prove she had drugs or alcohol in her system when the crime occurred, and wanted to use that to undercut her case?
Absolutely not, Rottenstreich said: “There will be no victim-blaming on her watch. She will set an example from the top down.”
Throughout her campaign, Elliott has emphasized her many years in the city attorney’s office as the reason she’s the most qualified to take over for her boss.
But Elliott’s initial response to my question about victim-blaming highlights the ways in which her résumé has the potential, in certain circumstances, to actually undermine her candidacy.
In this instance, her knee-jerk response was to hunker down and defend the client – to “put out the best defense you can put out.”
The person leading the city attorney’s office, however, is not just beholden to the client – they represent the citizens of San Diego too.