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Thursday, May 5, 2011

Insider Fights Corruption

Activist knows both sides of law: Mistakes shaped public defender, Tea Party lawyer Tim Pappas

The Redding Record Searchlight by Ryan Sabalow - May 3, 2011

When he was a young man in the mid-1980s, a rookie Torrance police officer named Tim Pappas watched two fellow officers kick and punch a handcuffed suspect. When officers with the department's internal affairs office asked him what happened, he says he told the truth, that he thought the officers used excessive force. "I didn't realize that from that point forward I was going to be considered a rat," Pappas, now Shasta County's assistant public defender, said recently over lunch. Pappas, 49, said that for the next few years, his fellow officers shunned him. They vandalized his locker. No one wanted to be his partner. It took a couple of years for him to regain their trust, he said. Then, in 1988, Pappas had his gun drawn, pointing at a motorcycle rider who had one arm pinned behind his back by another officer. Pappas says the suspect's free hand was on his head and he quickly dropped it toward his waistband, like he was reaching for a gun. Pappas flinched. The gun fired. The biker, a construction worker named Patrick J. Coyle, ended up partially paralyzed from the gunshot wound to the head, according to the Los Angeles Times. Pappas said the shooting was an accident, and he would have most likely been cleared by his superiors had he simply told the truth. Instead, Pappas lied. He said he faced intense pressure from his fellow officers to say Coyle was reaching for a lug wrench he'd already dropped. That lie had consequences. When the truth came out, the then 27-year-old Pappas was fired from the Torrance Police Department and ended up pleading no contest to a misdemeanor charge of making a false statement in a police report and obstructing an investigation. He was sentenced to probation and fined. "That was the biggest lesson," Pappas said. "Nothing in life — not gold, not money, not fame — is as important as your integrity and your name." He said he's since become a staunch defender in the rights of criminal defendants, and recently, he started doing free legal work for local conservative tea party activists, whose Constitutionalist leanings fit well with his staunch small-government ideals. As such, Pappas has become an outspoken figure in Shasta County political and legal circles. His work for the Tea Party also appears to have riled up local unions, whose lawyer has been probing whether Pappas' Tea Party work is happening on the taxpayers' dime.

A Tea Party advocate

Pappas said that after the shooting he decided to turn the lessons he learned into something positive. In 1994, he was admitted to the bar after receiving his law degree from the University of Northern California Lorenzo Patino School of Law in Sacramento. He went into private practice and later worked as a prosecutor at the Siskiyou County District Attorney's Office. He's been at the Shasta County Public Defenders Office since 2004. As a lawyer, Pappas says his experiences with the shooting made him a fierce advocate against government corruption. Recently, Pappas' legal work also has extended outside the criminal courtroom. In the last two months, Pappas has filed suits on behalf of two separate Tea Party groups who are challenging both the Shasta District Fair and the Redding Library for putting restrictions on leafleting and assembling on public property. Shasta County Public Defender Jeff Gorder said Pappas remains just as passionate about defending the constitutional rights of his criminal clients. He fired off a list of adjectives to describe his assistant: Hard working, passionate, indefatigable, tireless. "He has an amazing amount of energy," Gorder said. "He is a very devoted advocate for the clients he works for." At times that passion has raised the ire of some prosecutors in the rival Shasta County District Attorney's Office who get annoyed with Pappas' outspoken and often long-winded legal defense. But Erin Dervin, a deputy Shasta County district attorney, said she isn't one of them. Dervin, who's faced Pappas dozens of times in court over the years, described him as a "true believer." "Nobody can have him as a lawyer and not feel that they had a zealous, passionate, tough-as-nails defense," Dervin said. "If they come back and say they didn't, they're just wrong. But Pappas' advocacy work for the Tea Party also has apparently come under the scrutiny of local public employee unions. A union attorney has sought records trying to establish whether he's working for the conservative groups on the taxpayers' time, a claim that both Pappas and Gorder ardently deny. Last month, Ellyn Moscowitz, an Oakland attorney whose law firm specializes in representing labor groups, filed a request under the California Public Records Act seeking copies of Pappas' emails, documents and phone records that would show any correspondence between him and various Tea Party leaders, building advocates and city officials who are "members of the Tea Party."

Advocacy off the clock

Pappas said the county denied the request since he never wrote any documents or emails on behalf of the Tea Party using county resources. Pappas said he's refused a county-issued cellphone to avoid the temptation of using it for personal purposes. Efforts to reach Moscowitz to find out what groups she represents were unsuccessful. However, local union groups have been critics of what they call an effort by Tea Party members to push for a Redding city charter that would include an exemption from state prevailing wage laws. Pappas' boss, Gorder, said Pappas regularly checks in with him to update him on his outside legal work. Nothing he's done so far for the Tea Party has interfered with his criminal defense work, Gorder said. The county has no restrictions on an attorney with the public defender's or district attorney's offices doing free, outside legal work on their own time, said Michelle Schafer, the county's director of support services. Two legal and government ethics experts say that they don't have any concerns with Pappas' legal work for the Tea Party either. John Sprankling, a law professor who teaches ethics at University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, said that as long as Pappas' Tea Party business doesn't interfere with the work he does for his regular clients, there's nothing unethical about it. Judy Nadler, a former city mayor and a senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, agreed. She said government employees — even taxpayer-funded attorneys — have every right to advocate for a political cause or group off the clock. "As long as they (the Tea Party cases) don't have an impact the work he does, it's no different than a DA on the weekends walking precincts for someone else" in an election campaign, Nadler said. But that's not to say that all the extra legal work hasn't taken a toll. Pappas, who lives in Redding with his wife Shirlyn, said that some nights he's up well after midnight doing work for both his county clients and on his Tea Party cases. He said he owes it to them. He said his own experiences with corruption have helped him understand that everyone is entitled to ardent legal representation; something guaranteed them by the U.S. Constitution. "I'm going to do what I think is right. Period," Pappas said.

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