As a new campaign season emerges in Gomorrah by the Bay, stories of political parental betrayal abound. Geoffrey Brown, the former San Francisco public defender, has turned on his protégé, Jeff Adachi, after nurturing him as an heir. Carol Migden, the San Francisco assemblywoman, had for years chaperoned Supervisor Mark Leno as her political favorite son, before surprising him last week by endorsing his rival, Harry Britt.
"For 18 years, I was devoted to her," Leno says. "If he [Britt] is her political father or mentor, I'm her political protégé, or son."
If late 20th century San Francisco was a golden-age Sodom and Gomorrah, as Armistead Maupin suggested in Tales of the City, then perhaps the aftermath of that famous Bible story is a fitting motif for the city's new century: The daughters of Lot trudging toward Zoar as Sodom burns, mindful that their father had just offered them up to Sodom's rape-minded hordes. As they head into the desert, one can't help but wonder whether memories of their father's treachery will consume them or propel them forward. And what's going through their father's mind, now that he's performed this heinous deed?
Three days before Father's Day I'm sitting across from former Chief Assistant Public Defender Jeff Adachi in his Fillmore Street law office, listening to him talk about lawyering. It is a profession he obviously loves. Adachi's Japanese-American parents were interned during World War II. Ever since, he has dedicated himself to preventing miscarriages of justice.
"Being a public defender represented for me an opportunity to make sure that the process is fair, and that I could fight for people who couldn't defend themselves," he says.
Until January he had directed a staff of 80 idealistic attorneys as chief assistant to Public Defender Geoffrey Brown, overseeing an ambitious office overhaul. Instead of cutting deals with prosecutors, Adachi -- presumably with Brown's backing -- was encouraging lawyers to place aggressive bets at jury trials, and winning.
"From October 1999 to October 2000 we had an unbelievable number of wins," one attorney I talked to said. "There was a profound trickle-down effect. If we thought we were getting good deals before, then guess what? This does an amazing amount of good for credibility when an attorney says "We'll go to trial,' and means it."
During Adachi's tenure as chief assistant public defender, the San Francisco PD had swiftly gone from a department known for taking whatever they were offered by prosecutors to one of the toughest shops in the state.
Now Adachi sits alone in a Fillmore office, attending to private clients and, presumably, wondering why his former boss and mentor hung him out to dry.
"It's lonely in here," he says.
In January, Brown quit his post two years early to accept an appointment by Gray Davis to the California Public Utilities Commission as part of a three-way patronage deal involving State Senate Pro Tem John Burton and Willie Brown. As soon as Geoffrey Brown quit, Willie Brown appointed Burton's daughter, Kimiko Burton-Cruz, in his place.
Just as he resigned, Geoffrey Brown took the bizarre step of publicly humiliating Adachi. Adachi had inserted the words "I have every confidence in Jeff Adachi's ability to lead this office and in his bid to become the next public defender." Brown had said as much to his staff on several occasions, going so far as to tell the staff it would be a "crime" if Adachi didn't become San Francisco's next public defender, according to attorneys I spoke to. Just the same, Brown told a Chronicle reporter that Adachi had altered the message without his permission. Brown himself would not make such an endorsement because it would be an inappropriate use of office resources, he told the reporter. Within the week Burton-Cruz had moved into the PD office and fired Adachi.
While it's true that political patronage can carry unsavory duties, Geoffrey Brown's efforts to undermine Adachi seemed beyond the call of duty. I called Brown to ask about this. I asked if the news story had overstated his reaction. But Brown passed on the opportunity to spare any kind words for his protégé.
"What happened in terms of the e-mail in terms of that story is true," Brown said.
I called Peter Keene, who had been Brown's chief assistant since the 1970s, before retiring in 1998 to become dean of Golden Gate Law School. Had there been some sort of falling out between Adachi and Brown?
"I never heard any major criticisms from Jeff about Adachi's role as chief assistant," Brown said.
Attorneys both in and outside the public defender's office theorize that Brown may have felt sidelined by his brilliant protégé. Just last fall Willie Brown named Adachi the best manager in city government.
"There's no question he's the best trial lawyer I have ever seen in 33 years of being a criminal defense attorney," Keene says. "He's a charismatic leader who is absolutely held in awe by the people in the public defender's office who are there now -- the line troops -- because they know what a superb public defender he is."
Attorneys who spoke off the record describe a public defender's office whose morale has been crippled by Burton-Cruz's appointment. Attorneys haven't been impressed with the leadership of Burton-Cruz, who worked a few years as a low-level attorney in the Public Defender's office before being given a job in Willie Brown's office overseeing criminal justice grant programs.