Plenty of eyebrows are being raised over San Francisco
District Attorney Terence Hallinan's decision to allow -- even
encourage -- his prosecutors to give alleged Fajitagate victim
Jade Santoro a break on a drug bust conviction.
Critics say the D.A. was trying to bolster the credibility
of the 25-year- old Santoro, who had already agreed to plead
guilty to a felony marijuana charge but now is in position to
have that reduced to a misdemeanor in a year.
Santoro is expected to be on the stand in any assault trial
against the two officers and one ex-officer -- Alex Fagan Jr.
-- accused of beating up Santoro and a friend on Union Street
in a fight that started over steak fajitas. And Hallinan's
critics point out that a felony rap would look bad on the star
Hallinan's office says all those rumblings are bunk.
Prosecutors say the plea was just a matter of fairness, since
a co-defendant got a similar deal.
But Golden Gate University Law School Dean Peter Keane,
himself a former assistant public defender, called the plea
switch highly unusual.
"I've never heard of it in my 35 years of practicing law --
it never happens," Keane said. "When I heard about it, I was
rocked by it."
Fueling suspicions was Hallinan's decision to
simultaneously transfer -- some say demote -- Ray Fong, the
veteran deputy D.A. who had been assigned to Santoro's
prosecution and had him being saddled with a felony.
Hallinan's office called the transfer routine, saying Fong
was among 19 deputies shuffled in a recent round of transfers.
Others say it's reminiscent of the cops' decision to
transfer Lt. Joe Dutto off the Fajitagate case -- a move that
led to some of the police brass being briefly indicted on
charges of conspiring to obstruct justice.
Fong, who is off work attending to a family emergency, has
been unavailable for comment. But those who have spoken to him
smell a rat.
It all goes back to October -- more than a month before the
Union Street incident -- when Santoro and two other men were
busted with 20 pounds of marijuana and more than $460,000 in
Santoro was caught tossing bricks of the weed out the
In April, Santoro pleaded guilty to a single felony count
of possessing marijuana for sale.
Sources say it was Hallinan himself who set the lesser plea
in motion at a recent D.A. candidates forum at the Italian
Athletic Club when he ran across Eric Safire, the attorney
representing the other alleged Fajitagate victim, Adam Snyder,
in their civil suit against the cops.
Hallinan, our source says, told Safire he "didn't think it
was fair (Santoro) was taking the hit" on the drug case and
that "there was room for negotiation."
The next thing you know, Santoro was dumping his attorney
and hiring a new one. On Monday the two showed up in court,
where Santoro withdrew his original felony plea and instead
pleaded to a substitute felony charge -- known as a "wobbler"
-- that can be reduced to a misdemeanor after a year.
"Saddling him with a felony for the rest of his life would
not be a very fair thing to do," said Santoro's attorney,
Maybe, but you can bet the Fajitagate cops' attorneys will
make an issue of this latest twist if the case comes to trial
-- just as they plan to bring up Santoro's high alcohol level
the night of the assault and the fact that a small amount of
cocaine was found on him when he was taken to the hospital.
"You may just wave goodbye to the prosecution of the three
cops entirely," legal expert Keane said of the possible
consequences of Hallinan's plea switch.
"Jurors will see that this witness has a tremendous bias in
giving testimony for the prosecution because of this
extraordinary reward he's gotten, " Keane said.
BEHIND THE COUNT: All eyes will be on the California
secretary of state's office today for the big recall count --
but the real plays are going well behind the scenes.
The biggest question, of course, is whether Arnold
Schwarzenegger -- who just got back from a European promo tour
-- will make this the biggest story of the year by jumping
into the fray.
And now that the clock is ticking, the time for playing
cute is rapidly coming to an end.
"Everything is set up to go if he says 'yes,' but it's
do-it-or-get-off-the- pot time," admitted one source close to
the Terminator. "My expectation is that he's talking it over
with his wife right now."
One of the keys in all this will be the final round of
words between Schwarzenegger and former Los Angeles Mayor
Richard Riordan -- who is being urged to run by more liberal
"The bottom line," our source told us, "is if Arnold goes,
Dick won't. If Arnold doesn't do it, then it's highly likely
Dick will -- it's between the two of them to hash out."
From what we've hear, the Republican hierarchy --
especially those close to former Gov. Pete Wilson -- would
favor Schwarzenegger. At least that's the word that came out
of the Bohemian Grove this past weekend, where a number of
state and national GOPers, including presidential adviser Karl
Rove, happened to have gathered at a club getaway.
None of this would be good news for Gov. Gray Davis -- who
hopes his opponents will be limited to conservatives like Bill
Simon or San Diego-area Rep. Darrell Issa.
"There's no question Riordan would be the biggest problem
of them all," said one Davis operative. "He's the most
liberal, he has a strong name ID in Southern California and
you can't pin him as a right-winger -- which is the whole key
to the Davis strategy."
Chronicle columnists Phillip Matier and Andrew Ross
appear Sundays, Mondays and Wednesdays. They can also be heard
on KGO Radio on Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. Phil Matier
can be seen regularly on KRON-TV. Got a tip? Call them at
(415) 777-8815 or drop them an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.