Despite serious concerns voiced by Marin County constituents, District Attorney Lori Frugoli remains mum about a plethora of problems plaguing her office.
As Frugoli enters her second term, the DA’s office is experiencing an exodus of employees, a flood of racial discrimination claims and lawsuits by former and current personnel, unexplained delays of criminal investigations into police officer misconduct and a backlog of cases.
Since taking office in 2019, Frugoli has frequently delayed decisions or refused to take action on important issues, all the while ducking the media and the public when they demand answers.
The Pacific Sun asked Frugoli for an interview to discuss these matters. Although she declined to speak with us, she agreed to answer written questions.
The questions presented were mostly general in nature; however, Frugoli prefaced her responses with a tired caveat in an attempt to justify her continued lack of transparency.
“Considering there are [legal] claims regarding the subject of some of your questions and also ethical considerations about how much I can say about current cases, I am limited in my capacity to elaborate right now,” Frugoli said in an email.
Not surprisingly, Frugoli’s responses failed to reveal any new information.
The loss of experienced prosecutors in the DA’s Office is causing a backlog of cases and questionable practices. More than 36% of the department’s 30 prosecutors have resigned during the last two years. Already, three experienced prosecutors have quit in 2023, following seven departures last year and four in 2021.
Frugoli admits her office is unable to recruit replacements quickly enough to stop the bleeding.
“I can say-yes it is true that some personnel have left our office in recent months,” Frugoli wrote. “I am deeply concerned about the heavy caseloads and I’m doing everything I can to make sure justice is served in Marin.”
Worse yet, in recent months, past and current employees have filed claims and lawsuits against Frugoli and the county for a variety of alleged violations, including racial discrimination.
“There’s a cesspool of discrimination in the district attorney’s office,” said Charles Bonner, a civil rights attorney representing some current and former employees who have filed claims. “That discrimination has resulted in the termination of two stellar deputy district attorneys, Otis Bruce and Cameron Jones.”
Otis Bruce, Jr. worked for the county for more than three decades and is seeking $12 million in damages in his claim filed in January.
In 2020, Frugoli appointed Bruce, the county’s first Black prosecutor, as the Assistant District Attorney, the number two position in the office. However, just two years later, Bruce alleged Frugoli retaliated and discriminated against him for challenging the “unfair and inequitable treatment” of another Black prosecutor, who was fired last June.
Frugoli placed Bruce on administrative leave in September, taking his badge and gun, and barring him from the office, according to the claim. At the end of last year, Bruce retired and now serves as a prosecutor in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office.
In November, Cameron Jones, the Marin County prosecutor fired last summer, filed a federal lawsuit against Frugoli and the county for $18 million. According to the complaint, Jones was terminated to cover up the racial and gender discrimination grievance he filed with the county’s human resources department.
A victim witness advocate in the DA’s office, Yolanda Johnson, filed a claim in January for $9 million. Johnson, who is Black, states that “Lori Frugoli’s practice and pattern of racial discrimination created a hostile work environment.”
Several offensive incidents are cited in Johnson’s claim, including that Frugoli ignored her complaints about a photograph depicting a person in black face, which was displayed in an office cubicle.
Since taking office in January 2019, Frugoli has played Whac-A-Mole with high profile incidents.
Critics say Frugoli is soft on hate crimes, noting that she declined to file charges against a teen who terrorized Jewish students at Redwood High School on social media. Frugoli also said a man who plastered downtown Fairfax with Nazi propaganda stickers committed no crime.
When two youths threatened on social media to physically harm a Black shop owner in Tiburon, Frugoli consulted with the local police and determined it did not “meet the merits of a hate crime.”
Over the last year, various parts of Marin County have been periodically littered with antisemitic materials. Although Tiburon police collected videos of the perpetrator’s vehicle and license plate, Frugoli again walked away, even as DAs across the country are issuing litter citations and continuing to investigate similar incidents.
Another point of criticism is Frugoli’s handling of the criminal investigation into two San Rafael police officers who were caught on camera assaulting a Latino man in July, after stopping him for drinking beer in public. The man, who is being called “Mateo” because he fears retaliation, suffered a concussion, broken nose and other injuries.
Initially, Mateo was arrested, with the two officers filing reports stating that the 5-foot, 130-pound man assaulted Officer Brandon Nail, who is 6 feet two inches and 250 pounds. A few days later, the DA’s office filed felony charges against Mateo.
The charges were dropped three weeks later, after the deputy DA watched the police body camera videos. However, Frugoli made no move to investigate the officers that landed Mateo in the hospital, even after Mateo’s attorney, Charles Dresow, provided the videos to the media and public outrage grew.
Dresow sent Frugoli a letter in September requesting that she investigate or turn the case over to the California Attorney General. Frugoli responded within a day, both in a letter to Dresow and in a press release on the DA’s website, that her office would investigate.
Still, it remains unclear whether Frugoli, a former law enforcement officer who worked for the San Rafael Police Department, is the best choice to lead a criminal investigation into local police officers.
“It’s a significant conflict of interest for the District Attorney’s Office to investigate the police officers,” said Lauren Bonds, executive director of the National Police Accountability Project.
“A prosecutor relies heavily on information from police departments to do their job and there’s an inherent conflict [when a DA investigates a police officer]. The state attorney general or an independent review board would be a better investigatory body.”
In November, Frugoli held a forum in the Canal area, which is a predominantly Latino community. Person after person asked for an update into the investigation. Frugoli kept repeating that she couldn’t speak to San Rafael’s investigation, never mentioning the criminal investigation that she had agreed to conduct.
During the meeting, this reporter asked Frugoli to provide an update on the DA’s investigation. Shockingly, she stated that there was no investigation. When I pressed by citing her letter to Dresow and her September press release, she responded that it is a “review,” not an “investigation.”
Oddly, Frugoli’s press release does state she is conducting an investigation. Last week, after receiving another letter from Dresow demanding an update, she issued a new press release, stating that her office continues to “thoroughly examine the evidence.”
It has now been more than six months since Frugoli agreed to conduct a criminal investigation into the officers’ conduct, which was documented by video. She has refused to comment on why the process is not yet complete.
As a result of the Mateo incident, the DA has changed one policy. In October, Frugoli informed all Marin law enforcement agencies that when they submit a case to the DA to file charges, if an officer used physical force to detain or arrest a subject, they must submit all video and audio evidence at the same time.
While the change is a step in the right direction, it does raise the question of why reviewing available videos prior to filing criminal charges wasn’t already policy.
Frugoli needs to address the other problems pronto. Clearly, her office is being impacted negatively.
“I think the turmoil and upheaval in the District Attorney’s Office, combined with the COVID related trial backlog, are creating an incredible amount of pressure on the system,” criminal defense attorney Dresow said. “It’s really making it difficult for everyone.”