The DA's Svengali

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

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."

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