In the months leading up to her election as district attorney, Cynthia Zimmer promised to initiate change with a renewed focus on aggressive prosecutions and a determination to tamp down gang violence that has beleaguered the community.
She's early in her tenure, but change has come fast and furious.
First, the logo for the District Attorney's Office was switched from the county logo to a new design: a broken sword intersected by the Scales of Justice. Second, the office confirmed former DA Ed Jagels is returning in a voluntary, part-time role to work on legislative issues.
The biggest change, however, may be the one that's occurring behind the scenes among the office's attorneys.
Zimmer has reassigned a number of prosecutors from roles they held under retired DA Lisa Green to different positions, and multiple sources within the office have told The Californian certain moves were made in retaliation against those who publicly supported Scott Spielman, her opponent in the highly divisive election she won last year.
Three supervisors have been relegated to positions with no supervisory duties, remaining supervisors in title and salary only, according to sources. Others have been removed from the DA's main office in downtown Bakersfield and sent to outlying courts.
The sources spoke on condition of anonymity due to concern for their jobs if they were publicly identified.
Zimmer, who officially took office earlier this month, denied any changes occurred over who supported whom during the election.
She said it's important to have people close to her who share her philosophy in reducing violent crime. The moves she's made, she said, have affected every part of the office and impacted both those who supported her and those who didn't.
In addition to beefing up the homicide unit, she said, she has sent experienced attorneys to outlying courts to fulfill her campaign promise to better help victims who live in those areas.
"There is no victim in this county less worthy than any other victim," she said. "I wanted good people in those courts."
In the week before Christmas, according to the sources, a number of attorneys were emailed to schedule meetings regarding their new assignments. Many people who supported Spielman ended up either with demotions or what were seen as unfavorable assignments.
Meanwhile, most of the prosecutors who were in the gang unit — which Zimmer oversaw — were moved to the homicide unit, considered one of the more desirable positions in the office.
How have these changes impacted morale?
"Quite honestly, it's awful," said one source.
Another source said yelling and crying could at times be heard in the hallways as more and more people were reassigned without apparent good reason. While not characterized by new management as such, the moves were "very blatantly" demotions, the source said.
Still others say people in the office remain nervous, wondering what will happen next.
Multiple sources argued the changes can't be seen as anything other than punishment as veteran attorneys have been moved and replaced in some cases by prosecutors with less experience.
Sources pointed to the case of Tamara Basquez — who last year was named the office's "prosecutor of the year." Basquez, who filmed a video posted to Spielman's Facebook campaign page during the election, tried 23 cases in the past four years in the sex crimes division.
Following Zimmer’s win, Basquez was reassigned to the Lamont courthouse. Jessica Hartnett, who has tried 11 trials in four years, was made a lead attorney in the sex crimes division, according to the sources. (Hartnett supported Zimmer in the election.)
But The Californian also has been told that Hartnett has vast prior experience, handling 80 trials in 17 years.
Others who have been shifted to what sources say are less desirable jobs include Nick Lackie, Andi Bridges, Kristina Funderburk and supervisors Sara Danville, David Wilson and Melissa Allen.
All publicly supported Spielman during the campaign, sources say.
Danville, the former prison crimes supervisor, is now prosecuting cases in Mojave, according to sources. Allen, formerly supervisor of the family violence unit, has been reassigned to prosecute cases in the juvenile division.
And Wilson, who was supervisor of general felonies, is now a prosecutor in the homicide division.
The three, according to sources, have been relieved of all supervisory duties, but still are paid a supervisor's higher salary.
"I'm a taxpayer, too," one of the sources said. "I'm not happy about that."
The sources acknowledged the alleged retaliation was not carried out against all who allied themselves with Spielman during the election. And some received new assignments they wanted. But sources say enough were impacted that it can't be a coincidence.
"The fact that it’s been so consistent in that almost all of her supporters moved up while Scott's supporters moved down, it’s clearly because of retaliation," one of the sources said.
Zimmer rejects that conclusion.
The support level someone showed her during the election is completely irrelevant to her, and had no impact on the changes, she said. What is important, she said, is whether they agree with her philosophy in how best to seek justice for victims and reduce crime.
Zimmer said the new assignments aren't permanent. She said she feels inclined to rotate people for career-building purposes to give them a variety of experience rather than permanently keep someone in one division.
Another alleged slight occurred during Zimmer's Jan. 11 swearing-in ceremony, sources said. Prosecutors who supported Spielman were relegated to an overflow room instead of the main room despite seats being available upon their arrival, according to sources.
While these people sat in an overflow room and watched the ceremony on a screen, others, who supported Zimmer and arrived later, were allowed into the main room, sources said.
In response, Zimmer said she didn't know how many people would turn up for the ceremony. She gave priority seating to her family, people that were speaking during the ceremony, and to law enforcement and elected officials.
But no one was denied access to the main room over their support of her opponent, she said.
"Some of my closest friends were sitting in the overflow room," she said. "And some of the people that supported my opponent were sitting with me."
In addition to Zimmer's comments, Joseph Kinzel, the DA's spokesman, released a statement that reads in part:
"All county employees have union representation and civil service protections that allow due process to determine valid claims. We are aware of no such claims being made, much less sustained. Any valid claims should be brought through the proper procedures made available to all county employees."
Kinzel said he was unable to fulfill The Californian's request for the number of trials and trial hours worked by 12 specific prosecutors as those numbers are part of confidential employee records.
NEW UPPER MANAGEMENT
Spielman has taken a job at the Tulare County District Attorney's Office. Chief Deputy District Attorney Mark Pafford, who was Lisa Green's third-in-command, is now prosecuting cases in the prison crimes unit.
In their place, Zimmer elevated veteran prosecutors Jim Simson and Andrea Kohler. Both are titled as assistant district attorneys.
Simson previously supervised the traffic safety automation unit. He has prosecuted numerous high-profile cases, and received attention for a series of convictions in DUI murder cases.
His new responsibilities include continued oversight of the traffic safety automation unit as well as the investigations bureau, the business office and the crime lab director.
"First of all I was very excited, but at the same time I feel the weight of responsibility that this job entails," Simson said of his promotion. "It was a contested election, and I feel a strong obligation to make sure we do the right thing for the employees in this office and the citizens of Kern County."
Kohler formerly supervised the homicide unit, and has previously worked in the prison and gang units.
She now oversees the victim advocates, the Family Justice Center and support staff.
Zimmer said the office has grown enough over the years that she wanted two assistant district attorneys, each assigned to different divisions to watch over.
She believes these and other changes she has implemented will better serve Kern residents.
"I think we're moving in the direction we need to move to help victims and reduce violent crime."