Sitting in a coffee shop on Harrison Street and sipping a latte shortly before 8 a.m., embattled Humboldt County Public Defender David Marcus pauses to consider a question. Throughout his 20 years of experience as a deputy public defender in San Bernardino County and as chief of Lassen County's office, Marcus has faced waves of criticism and resistance from co-workers and colleagues. In the words of one former Lassen County supervisor, those around Marcus have a tendency to reach for their "long knives."
So just what is it about the 64-year-old attorney that draws this reaction?
"Because I've always been controversial and aggressive," Marcus says. "I mean, my nickname is 'Taz,' so I probably earned that."
Taz? As in the Tasmanian Devil?
"Yeah, one of the bailiffs nicknamed me 'The Taz' and it kind of stuck."
But how would that rub your coworkers in a zealous public defender's office the wrong way?
"You know, I'm not sure," Marcus says, his voice trailing off as he glances down at his latte. "I have my own ideas about that. I think some people don't work as hard as they should for their clients and I was vocal about that. Still am. Not everyone's going to like you."
Thing is, that is the exact allegation that has been lobbed at Marcus, repeatedly, from his early days as a deputy public defender in San Bernardino County — a 13-year position he left with no notice, resigning via Post-it note — to Lassen County, where he left shortly after a scathing grand jury report accused him of only spending 30 to 40 percent of his days at work. And it is an allegation that followed him to Humboldt County, where his staff has accused him of being incompetent and indifferent, and some have dubbed him with a far more disparaging nickname: Nibs, defined as "a mock title used to refer to a self-important man."
As a lawsuit continues to work its way through the courts, challenging whether Marcus meets minimum state qualifications for the job he landed in February, much of the focus has been on his recent work history and whether he's fulfilled the statutory requirement of having been "a practicing attorney in all the courts of the state for at least the year preceding the date of his election or appointment." (He says he spent the five years after leaving Lassen County doing remote contract work on civil cases for the firm Cella, Lange and Cella, but has been unable to provide any documents, court filings, time cards or correspondence showing he did any such work in the year prior to his hire.) The board of supervisors, meanwhile, has been largely silent on Marcus' hire, with members saying they're bound by the confidentiality of personnel and employee grievance policies and procedures.
The board's strongest statement of support for its new hire came back in March, when, under the threat of a lawsuit and in the face of a public defender employee revolt, it met with Marcus in closed session and issued a statement touting Marcus' 20 years of criminal defense experience in Lassen and San Bernardino counties.
In recent weeks, the Journal has reached out to almost three dozen of Marcus' former employees, colleagues and co-workers. More than half didn't return calls or simply declined to comment. Others had a lot to say.
Anna Morrison sounds chipper when she answers the phone at her southern California home. She's a children's author and teaches writing at a handful of colleges and universities down south but, almost two decades ago, she was the administrative assistant in the Redland's branch of the San Bernardino County Public Defender's Office, where Marcus worked as the supervising attorney from 1999 to 2001.
"He's a unique individual. He's very charming, very pleasant," Morrison says. "He certainly never made any waves with me."
But as the conversation goes on, it's clear Morrison feels conflicted. On the one hand, she says Marcus was good to her. He let her work a nontraditional 7-4 schedule so she could go back to school, which ultimately paved the way for her second career. But his management of the office caused problems, most notably his penchant for ending his workday at lunchtime and pushing his caseload onto other attorneys in the office, she says.
"That got pretty explosive. Yelling — there was, at one point, a lot of yelling," she says, laughing quietly at the memory and adding that much of the fireworks came between Marcus and a young deputy public defender fresh out of law school named Dennis Wilkins. "Honestly, I think Dennis was just tired of Dave giving him all of the work — all of the work. Dennis did the brunt of the work there and when others came, they did the brunt of the work."
Wilkins, who still works at the San Bernardino County Public Defender's Office and whom a former colleague calls a "true believer who would fight all the time," confirms this, though he recalls Marcus' daily departure time to be closer to 10 a.m. But Wilkins says he came to Redlands fresh off passing the bar, having started in the office as a volunteer for several weeks before being hired on. Marcus, he says, made an impression.
"He did almost no work. He did barely any work at all," he says. "He was too busy leaving, not doing his job, not fighting for his clients, not setting cases for trial, not filing motions, not learning the law. He would ingratiate himself with the deputies, with the DA, with the judges. He would ingratiate himself and sell his clients out. ... I wish I could say he was just stupid. He was not."
A half dozen attorneys who worked with Marcus in the San Bernardino Public Defender's Office all share similar stories of how he would plea out defendants who should have gone to trial, ask virtually no questions during evidentiary hearings and declare conflicts whenever cases got tough or complicated. They all say it appeared Marcus was more interested in running his construction business on the side than defending the rights of San Bernardino County's poor, which they say is why he left so early on a daily basis.
For his part, Marcus says he's "not surprised" to hear some of his former colleagues had negative things to say about him. But he disputes ever prioritizing his construction business — which built single family homes and installed commercial display lighting — over his public defender work.
"I don't know who said that but that was always the rumor," he says, adding that his bosses knew there was nothing to it and that his wife primarily managed the construction company. He also disagrees with the notion that he spent an inordinate time out of the office. "I don't think that's fair at all. I guess the thing that people perceive is that, if you're not there at the same time as they are, that you're not there."
Marcus says he frequently got into the office two or three hours before other attorneys trickled in. Morrison confirms this, saying it always seemed Marcus had been at the office for at least an hour when she showed up at 7 a.m. but she recalls other frustrations, like Marcus not returning phone calls from clients and their parents, sometimes leading to angry confrontations. Despite Marcus' penchant for getting into work early, former colleagues say part of being a public defender is simply being present in court to pull your own weight when cases are called.
Wilkins chuckles recalling one particular story. He was about 14 months into working with Marcus, "carrying his heavy ass," as he puts it, when Wilkins took a couple of days off and a supervisor filled in for him. Recognizing how much of the Redlands caseload Marcus was sloughing off on Wilkins, the supervisor immediately bumped the young attorney's pay from $10 an hour to $25, Wilkins says.
Another attorney who defended cases alongside Marcus for several stints in San Bernardino and declined to be named in the story, saying he feared Marcus might sue him in retaliaton for his honest opinion, says Marcus had a distinct reputation within the office.
"It was understood that when you worked with the guy, you were going to carry his work," he says. "It was obvious he didn't give a shit about our clients. He was out for himself and his own convenience. But don't get me wrong, he's a smart guy. In trial, he'd be someone to watch because he always had a trick or two up his sleeve. The problem was he never really utilized his talent because was just too damn lazy."
While Marcus' job application with the county indicates he spent his 13 years in San Bernardino entirely in the Redlands branch, according to those who worked with him, he spent the bulk of his tenure there working in other departments. And even the story of how he landed in Redlands — a sleepy retirement suburb assignment coveted by many senior attorneys in the office of 100 or so defense counsels — is the subject of controversy.
George Taylor, a defense attorney in the office for decades until he semi-retired in 2010, says he was stationed in the Fontana branch, where he shared a courtroom with Marcus in the late 1990s, when word circulated that the senior attorney in Redlands was retiring. Taylor says he was in court one day when a man in the back caught his attention, called him over and told him he thought he was supposed to be in court but his case wasn't on the day's calendar. He asked the guy who his attorney was and he said it was Marcus.
"I went over and talked to Dave,'" Taylor recalls with a laugh, saying Marcus responded by trying to dump the case on him. "He said, 'You were the last person he talked to, you should take his case.' I walked away."
About five minutes later, Taylor says he was walking down the courthouse hallway just outside the judges' chambers.
"Dave is walking toward me and said, 'Fuck you, Taylor.' I look at him and I'm thinking he's kidding and as we get closer, he says it again, 'Fuck you, Taylor.' As we get closer, he says it again, 'Fuck you.' I said, 'OK, fuck you, too.' I don't know what's going on but I'm thinking we're having a fuck-you contest. Next thing I know, he's poking my chest and I'm telling him, 'You better get your hands off me right now.'"
"Then, he goes back to the office and tells my supervisor he can't work with me, says I was dumping cases on him," Taylor says. "Subsequently, he gets transferred to Redlands."
Marcus says he has no recollection of the altercation. "I'm not saying every conversation we had was friendly, but I don't remember an actual confrontation," he says, adding that he doesn't recall his transfer to Redlands having "anything to do with George."
But allegations of laziness, absenteeism and indifference seem to have followed Marcus throughout his tenure in San Bernardino. One former high-level supervisor, who asked not to be identified disparaging Marcus, says he simply has a low opinion of the man because "he didn't work."
"I do know that everyone, or at least my memory says that everyone who worked with him complained that they were doing all his work," he says, quickly adding that, from a supervisor's perspective, there were some silver linings to Marcus' style. "You have to remember, you're dealing with enormous numbers of cases and it drives you crazy. As a supervisor, you want to have in your arsenal of lawyers somebody who can basically move cases from open to closed as quickly as possible. Mr. Marcus excelled at that. He would go in with a big caseload and come out with nothing, all the cases having been pleaded or dealt away. ... I can't recall him ever trying a case."
For as long as Marcus worked in the San Bernardino County Public Defender's Office — 13 years — his tenure came to an abrupt end. He'd transferred back from Redlands to one of the office's more urban branches and, Morrison says, things weren't going well.
"The chief had to explain to him that he was expected to stay and to be in court," she says. "There was some friction there but there were still days when he took off early. I don't think he stayed very long."
One day a supervisor, Mark Shoup, cracked down on Marcus and he pledged to spend more time in the office, according to multiple sources familiar with the conversation. A couple of days later, Shoup arrived at the office to find Marcus' keys sitting on his desk next to a Post-it note that said, "I quit."
Shoup declined to comment for this story — at some point during the Journal's reporting, San Bernardino County counsel admonished employees not to talk about Marcus — but Marcus doesn't dispute the account, though he says he also sent an email notifying his bosses that he was giving two-week's notice, to be served out of his accrued vacation time. Asked what pushed him to do that, Marcus says he had two young sons and wanted to spend more time with them, so he took a year off.
Some years later, Marcus would apply when San Bernardino was hiring for a new chief public defender. Wilkins says he wrote a scathing email to the county administrative officer and the board of supervisors, detailing all his accusations against Marcus, who wasn't offered the job.
"I did everything I could to torpedo that," Wilkins says, no small amount of pride in his voice.
Before Marcus ever arrived in Lassen County, it was the scene of an epic battle pitting the public defender in one of California's smallest offices against a law-and-order judge in a prison town, setting the stage for an upset that would become the stuff of public defender lore, law school lessons and legal magazine profiles. Some say it also left a small, rural courthouse in tatters.
Jim Chapman, a retired Lassen County supervisor who served for 36 years on the board, says to understand the battle fully, you have to understand Lassen and its county seat, Susanville, a prison town populated by guards, cattle ranchers and loggers. Calling it a law and order place, Chapman says, undersells it, and nobody embodied that ethos more than Ridgely Lazard, a retired-district-attorney-turned-superior-court-judge.
"It's a prison town full of prison guards and Lazard played that to the hilt," Chapman says.
According to court documents, that meant not allowing defendants to speak to a public defender prior to entering pleas, saying that, if he felt it was "appropriate," he would allow them to do so before sentencing. Lazard was also prone to doling out 30-day jail sentences for failures to appear in court, ignoring mandatory drug treatment sentencing options, sometimes locking the doors while court was in session and barring public defenders from in-chambers conferences while he allowed prosecutors and private attorneys to attend.
In August of 2000, Lassen tapped Toni Healy as its next public defender and she quickly began butting heads with Lazard. In September of 2004, Healy filed a petition with the court seeking to bar Lazard from hearing the public defender's office's cases, which accounted for 90 percent of the county's caseload. The following month, visiting Judge Galen Hathaway ruled in Healy's favor, finding Lazard to be "biased and prejudiced" against her office and stating that Healy's allegations were supported by court records, transcripts and sworn statements. The decision prevented one of Lassen's two judges from hearing 90 percent of the county's caseload. It also left Healy battered, and within days of the ruling, she announced her retirement.
Into this scene strolled Marcus, fresh off a year spent cross-country road tripping with his wife and kids. Initial reviews were glowing.
"When he showed up, it was very evident he knew what he was doing," says Robert Grant, a private investigator who worked with the public defender's office at the time. "He immediately showed, 'Hey, I got this.'"
Paul Drevenstedt, now a supervising deputy public defender in Ventura County, was Marcus' first hire, brought in a couple of months after he took over the office. Drevenstedt, who was fresh out of law school at the time, says he loved working for Marcus.
"I'm a manager now and I, to this day, talk to public defenders about my first manager," he says. "Dave did a very good job of instilling in me a dedication to this type of work, the clientele we serve and doing the best job you can for your clients. He stressed that this job can be emotionally taxing and that you have to find ways not to let it chew you up."
Drevenstedt says he always felt supported by Marcus but never micromanaged. Journal attempts to reach all other attorneys who worked under Marcus in Lassen — including current Public Defender Rhea Giannotti — were unsuccessful.
For his part, Chapman says Marcus was like the golden child, who stepped competently into a chaotic situation and got along with everyone. "He was kind of a bright star within the county family," Chapman says of Marcus, who brought his office in under budget six of his seven years there.
In April of 2006, after a little more than a year on the job, Marcus raised eyebrows when he allowed Lazard to once again hear cases involving the public defender's office. The move angered some in the courthouse but Chapman says he saw it as a testament to Marcus' ability to work with people and a sign of his wanting to be a part of a smoothly running criminal justice system.
Marcus says he only made the move after getting assurances from the presiding judge that if there were problems, he would immediately have Lazard removed from public defender cases. But Lazard was fair upon his return, Marcus says, until he was ultimately voted out of office seven months later.
Real turmoil began brewing when the county's chief administrative officer, John Ketelsen, encouraged Marcus to get his masters in public administration from Chico State University. "The arrangement he had with Dave is he'd basically come into work at like 6 a.m., do a couple of hours in office, be in court in the a.m. and then, by mid afternoon, he'd be freed up," Chapman says, adding that Marcus would then make the two-hour drive from Susanville to Chico to take classes before making the hour-and-a-half drive back to his home in Lake Almanor. "He put a lot of demand on himself in order to be able to do that."
Chapman says things turned south for Marcus in Lassen after Ketelsen — who'd taken Marcus under his wing — was pushed out under "less than desirable circumstances."
"Then there's Dave sitting there, the fair haired boy of the guy who was just given his walking papers," Chapman says. "Folks decided to pull out their long knives and began a sort of concerted effort to denigrate Dave's position within the organization."
And Marcus gave them ammunition, according to Chapman, who says it was discovered that Marcus continued his school schedule of getting in early and leaving early long after he'd finished his coursework in Chico, leaving his office empty for long stretches. This rubbed co-workers the wrong way, Chapman says.
The 2010-2011 Lassen County Civil Grand Jury issued a scathing report on Marcus, accusing him of only spending 30 to 40 percent of his days in court, failing to carry his share of the caseload and inappropriately using all his office's continuing education funds on himself while forcing his two deputies to pay for their ongoing trainings out of pocket.
Marcus denies all the allegations in the report — as well as Chapman's charge that he kept his school schedule longer than he should have — and sees it as the work of a Lassen County judge, Don Sokol, who used to head the grand jury and allegedly turned on Marcus after learning he was considering disqualifying him from a case. Marcus also blames a private investigator he had angered by refusing to work with him.
Asked why he decided to leave Lassen, Marcus is quick to say he "wasn't asked to leave." Chapman says he doesn't "think Dave's job was ever in jeopardy." People were trying to get him fired, Chapman says, but they didn't have the votes on the board.
But Marcus says the experience took a toll and he was "irritated" by the grand jury report. In September of 2011, Marcus decided to resign, stepping away from a job that paid him a salary of $98,000, telling the Lassen County Times he was leaving to take a position as the CEO of Alpha Dental, a lab owned by his good friend on the East Coast.
But Karen Gossard, Alpha Dental's current financial officer, says Marcus didn't really take a position with the company, but instead served more as a part-time business consultant. Court filings would later show Marcus reported making about $19,000 for six months of work for the company. Asked how Marcus performed on the job, Gossard says only, "I'd rather not say."
Nine months after departing Lassen County, Marcus left Alpha Dental in June of 2012. The following month, he filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection.
Marcus — who reported personally owning four cars, including a BMW, a boat and a motorcycle — owed $155,000 in credit card debt, according to forms filed in the case. He also owed hundreds of thousands of dollars more on his home — a 3,000-square-foot house in a gated community that he'd purchased in 2005 for $700,000 — than it was worth.
Asked if there were any mitigating circumstances that led to the filing and his personal finances spiraling out of control, Marcus says of the filing, "Largely, it was to avoid several hundred thousands of dollars in unearned income tax." Asked to explain, he declines.
He reported no tax debt in the bankruptcy filings.
Back at the coffee shop on Harrison, Marcus is asked if there's anything he'd like to add to his interview with the Journal, anything he'd like to add to the public. To this point, the conversation has remained focused on his relatively distant past — the subject of his qualifications that are at the heart of the lawsuit challenging his appointment is off limits, as are the letters of no confidence and grievances filed by his current employees.
"I think just that things are getting substantially better," Marcus says. "I think it's indicated by the fact that we're out there doing our jobs. I think we're doing a great job for the public and our clients. I want people to know we're working very hard to carry out our function defending — I hate to use the word indigents; I'd rather just say our clients."
Few in the office dispute this. But in a series of interviews with about a half-dozen employees — all of whom declined to be publicly identified criticizing their boss — staff and deputy public defenders make clear they feel the office is carrying on its function in spite of Marcus. There's simply no choice, they say, as they have thousands of clients who depend on them and they carry more than 80 percent of the county's caseload. If the office stumbles, so does the Humboldt County Superior Court. But they allege Marcus does little to fill a leadership role, pull his own weight or advise them on cases. When Deputy Public Defender Owen Tipps recently departed to take a job with the court, employees say it was the office's deputies — not Marcus — who figured out how to divide up his duties and caseload. Multiple employees allege Marcus is "content to do as little as possible."
It is perhaps noteworthy that when filling out the references section of his application for the position in Humboldt, Marcus didn't list anyone from the public defender's offices he spent a combined 20 years in. Instead, he listed two "professional" references: his friend of 30 years Chris Cella — a partner in the law firm Cella, Lange and Cella — and a man named William Naeve, an Irvine attorney who Marcus had gone to law school with almost 40 years earlier.
Reached by phone, Naeve seems surprised when asked about his impressions of Marcus. He's ducking into a meeting and can't talk, he says.
"I never worked with the guy, just went to law school with him," Naeve says, asking the reporter to call him back later in the day. Subsequent voicemails seeking additional comment went unreturned.
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.