Pin It

The DA's Svengali 

Earlier this year, the District Attorney's Office was flirting with farce. Then Terence Hallinan called in David Millstein.

Wednesday, Sep 4 1996
Comments

When his widely respected chief assistant prosecutor, Marla Miller, bailed out last May, new San Francisco District Attorney Terence Hallinan was reeling. The former boxer looked as if he might not make it out of the first round.

So, the old radical, and two-term S.F. supervisor, did what came naturally in times of turmoil. He called the legal cut man who had stood in his corner during so many other bouts, David J. Millstein.

Millstein had helped stanch Hallinan's wounds frequently:
When Hallinan was targeted by a slanderous campaign mailer in 1992.
When his son was pinched by police for rousting a pot dealer in 1993.
When he was sued for sexual harassment by a former City Hall aide in 1995.

But the trouble the new DA faced in May of 1996 required more than bandages and advice. Hallinan, 59, needed another pair of fists. Someone to deflect the blows. To help him regain balance. To get him off the ropes in a new, more intimidating political ring.

In the four months since Millstein leaped to Hallinan's defense, his climb has drawn rapt attention within legal circles. His power has grown immensely. Hallinan quietly turned over to his lawyer -- a man with negligible experience in the criminal courts -- near complete managerial control over an office with 350 employees, a $30 million annual budget, and crucial law enforcement authority.

What that says about the so-called "progressive" district attorney San Franciscans elected in December will have to await the later rounds. But Hallinan, for one, sounds pretty damn happy with the arrangement.

"It was a real good decision," says the DA. "I do have a feeling of confidence."

Hallinan is not alone. Several experienced S.F. prosecutors praise Millstein's edgy energy. They also laud his willingness to attack entrenched sloth and question some of the Hall of Justice's dirty little secrets.

Time was when judges freely skirted controversial cases by calling in their retired (read: politically immune) cronies to cut cushy deals with defendants. As if that weren't enough, those same black robes let cops punch the overtime clock. Officers were allowed to back-bench it while waiting to be called to the witness stand -- even though everybody knew (wink, nod) that they would not be testifying for days. But Millstein has made clear the DA will no longer be party to the coziness.

Such subversions might warrant congratulations. But they come at a price. Millstein's assault on the established order, some insist, is the product of an overarching ego and a frequently personal agenda. That suspicion is fueled in part by the highly unusual, ethically dubious arrangement under which he receives a $123,000 public salary, while maintaining his private civil law practice on the side.

If his motives are in question, his tactics are, too. Some assistant district attorneys say the new regime carries an authoritarian mien, marked by vindictiveness and intolerance for dissent. S.F. police thoroughly distrust Millstein, which only serves to worsen relations between agencies that have had a troubled rapport, but which voters count on to cooperate for effective law enforcement.

Millstein's response? He says he's comfortable drawing fire for a necessarily reformist DA.

"My role very much is as an agent of change," he says. "It is Terence's office. The talent I have is I know what Terence wants. I've represented him. I've practiced with him. I know what Terence wants this office to look like better than anyone else in this office."

Agent of change, maybe. But Millstein, 43, could be confused for an agent of contradiction, if not conflict. His daily commute from Mill Valley, crisscrossing the Golden Gate Bridge in a black Porsche, requires two cellular telephones at his fingertips -- one for public business, the other for private clients.

While that balancing act has arched more than a few eyebrows, Millstein is hard at work on the public dime. The lean, short, antsy prosecutor is so hands-on at the Hall of Justice that he has been known to convene impromptu meetings with assistant district attorneys in the open-air concrete stairwells, the building's last haven for smokers.

It's not surprising that Millstein knows where to find the department's workhorses. The Hall of Justice, surrounded as it is by bars, bondsmen, and criminal-defense-lawyer storefronts, was familiar territory to him long before he signed on with Hallinan.

Fifteen years ago, he had landed a job as a misdemeanor prosecutor, straight out of Boalt Hall, the prestigious law school at University of California, Berkeley.

Much of Millstein's impetus today apparently proceeds from that experience -- which lasted just 14 months. "Even though my initial plan was to stay longer, I felt disillusioned," he says.

Millstein maintains he left of his own accord. Some say otherwise. But one thing is uncontested: He had a horrible relationship with his boss, who was still to be found at the hall the day Millstein accepted Hallinan's call.

Millstein contends he took no particular satisfaction when he assumed the post above his vanquished peers and superiors. "It felt like a place from a distant memory," he says of his first day back in the office. "Returning is not something I have sought after. I didn't have that aspiration. I still look at myself as Mr. Hallinan's attorney and counselor."

Perhaps. Some veterans, however, contend that Millstein's protestations of subservience belie a highly personal agenda.

Among his first moves after Hallinan passed on the administrative reins was to sack his boss of 14 years ago, Assistant District Attorney Gerald Koelling. "Koelling was an autocrat," Millstein says. "His favorites tended to be conservative white males who tended to be ex-cops."

With Hallinan vacationing in Hawaii, Millstein made a phone call to determine how much an early termination would cost Koelling in terms of retirement pay. Then he pulled the trigger.

"I would have to work with somebody I had a difficult history with, and his departure wasn't imminent," says Millstein. "I decided to check and discovered he would not suffer some egregious diminution." But the matter didn't end there.

About The Author

Chuck Finnie

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Slideshows

  • Nevada City and the South Yuba River: A gold country getaway

    Nestled in the green pine-covered hills of the Northern Sierra Nevada is the Gold Rush town of Nevada City. Beautiful Victorian houses line the streets, keeping the old-time charm alive, and a vibrant downtown is home to world-class art, theater and music. The nearby South Yuba River State Park is known for its emerald swimming holes during the summer and radiant leaf colors during autumn. These days the gold panning is more for tourists than prospectors, but the gold miner spirit is still in the air.

    South Yuba River State Park and Swimming Holes:
    The park runs along and below 20 miles of the South Yuba River, offering hiking, mountain biking, gold panning and swimming. The Highway 49 bridge swimming hole is seven-miles northwest of Nevada City where Highway 49 crosses the South Yuba River. Parking is readily available and it is a short, steep hike to a stunning swimming hole beneath a footbridge. For the more intrepid, trails extend along the river with access to secluded swim spots. The Bridgeport swimming hole has calm waters and a sandy beach -- good for families and cookouts -- and is located 14 miles northwest of Nevada City. Be sure to write down directions before heading out, GPS may not be available. Most swimming holes on the South Yuba River are best from July to September, while winter and spring can bring dangerous rapids. Always know the current before jumping in!

    Downtown Nevada City
    The welcoming, walkable downtown of Nevada City is laid back, yet full of life. Start your day at the cozy South Pine Cafe (110 S Pine St.) with a lobster benedict or a spicy Jamaican tofu scramble. Then stroll the streets and stop into the shop Kitkitdizzi (423 Broad St.) for handcrafted goods unique to the region, vintage wears and local art “all with California gold rush swagger,” as stated by owners Carrie Hawthorne and Kira Westly. Surrounded by Gold Rush history, modern gold jewelry is made from locally found nuggets and is found at Utopian Stone Custom Jewelers (301 Broad St.). For a coffee shop with Victorian charm try The Curly Wolf (217 Broad St.), an espresso house and music venue with German pastries and light fare. A perfect way to cool down during the hot summer months can be found at Treats (110 York St.) , an artisan ice cream shop with flavors like pear ginger sorbet or vegan chai coconut. Nightlife is aplenty with music halls, alehouses or dive bars like the Mine Shaft Saloon (222 Broad St.).

    The Willo Steakhouse (16898 State Hwy 49, Nevada City)
    Along Highway 49, just west of Nevada City, is The Willo, a classic roadhouse and bar where you’re welcomed by the smell of steak and a dining room full of locals. In 1947 a Quonset hut (a semi-cylindrical building) was purchased from the US Army and transported to its current location, and opened as a bar, which became popular with lumberjacks and miners. The bar was passed down through the decades and a covered structure was added to enlarge the bar and create a dining area. The original Quonset beams are still visible in the bar and current owners Mike Byrne and Nancy Wilson keep the roadhouse tradition going with carefully aged New York steaks and house made ingredients. Pair your steak or fish with a local wine, such as the Rough and Ready Red, or bring your own for a small corkage fee. Check the website for specials, such as rib-eye on Fridays.

    Outside Inn (575 E Broad St.)
    A 16-room motel a short walk from downtown, each room features a unique décor, such as the Paddlers’ Suite or the Wildflower Room. A friendly staff and an office full of information about local trails, swimming and biking gets you started on your outdoor exploration. Amenities include an outdoor shower, a summer swimming pool and picnic tables and barbeques. Don’t miss the free vegetable cart just outside the motel in the mornings.

    Written and photographed by Beth LaBerge for the SF Weekly.

  • Arcade Fire at Shoreline
    Arcade Fire opened their US tour at Shoreline Amphitheater to a full house who was there in support of their album "Reflector," which was released last fall. Dan Deacon opened the show to a happily surprised early audience and got the crowd actively dancing and warmed up. DEVO was originally on the bill to support Arcade Fire but a kayak accident last week had sidelined lead singer Mark Mothersbaugh and the duration of the west coast leg of the tour. Win Butler did a homage to DEVO by performing Uncontrollable Urge.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular