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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.
At the request of Assistant District Attorney Paul Cummins, a widely respected veteran who is Hallinan's criminal division chief, Millstein gave Koelling a rehearing, and agreed to take him back until March, when Koelling would qualify for full retirement benefits.
A stand-up act? Not really.
Millstein couldn't let it go without rubbing Koelling's nose in his beneficence.
According to knowledgeable sources, Millstein had a parting shot for Koelling: "I have shown you more compassion than you ever showed me as an impressionable young DA."
When Hallinan placed his call for help to Millstein, the ropes were closing in fast on the new DA.
"No wonder I was out of my mind," says Hallinan, refreshing his memory by picking through his office calendar.
On May 1, Hallinan had brawled at a Marina District restaurant with developer Joe O'Donoghue. The occasion was a birthday bash for bad-boy political consultant Jack Davis. But it was Hallinan who donned the black hat.
The next day, Marla Miller, a former federal prosecutor and partner in a downtown law firm, resigned as Hallinan's second in command. The departure came after Hallinan criticized Miller's handling of a female prosecutor's hotly contested claim she had been sexually assaulted by a male colleague.
"I acted correctly," Miller responded at the time in a written press release about her differences with Hallinan. "The district attorney should have recognized that and supported me. Instead, he has made disparaging statements on and off the record. That is not my idea of leadership, and I am no longer willing to serve in his office."
Recalling the week, Hallinan says: "I must have fallen back on David immediately. 'Help!' "
This cavalry of one acted swiftly. By mid-July -- with Hallinan out of town and before the paint had dried on his new office door -- Millstein sacked four assistant district attorneys, Koelling among them. He also let it be known publicly that he had actually drawn up a list of 10 prosecutors to be fired, which presumably left six unnamed assistant DAs with targets on their heads. The comment was either a callous managerial gaff, or a bold Machiavellian stroke to quiet dissent.
At the same time, Millstein replaced nearly half the prosecutors in supervisorial positions -- and set in motion top-to-bottom shuffling of office spaces.
The physical changing of offices, carried out last month, served multiple purposes. It wiped out an old hierarchy. No longer would felony trial lawyers be segregated by floor from the less experienced assistant district attorneys assigned misdemeanor caseloads. Senior lawyers were paired in offices with a younger lawyer. That encouraged mentor relationships and discouraged generational cliques. A new pecking order could be conveyed, based on the proximity of one's office to those of David Millstein and Terence Hallinan.
Of his new supervising, or managing attorneys, Millstein says, "I told each one of them, 'I want you to go to a bookstore and get a book on management -- one that is written in your language.' "
Among the new chief assistant's biggest backers is Assistant District Attorney Susan Breall. Breall heads the office's new victim-friendly approach to handling domestic violence prosecution, under which domestic violence cases are assigned to one prosecutor -- from arraignment through trial -- so that victims in these cases don't get passed from one DA to the next.
"I'm happy to make my opinion known," says Breall. "I think David Millstein has an entirely fresh approach to the office. He had to come in as the Number 2 and assimilate 200 different office functions," she says, marveling. According to Breall, the shock therapy administered in July was long overdue. "You had [assistant] DAs who were very sedentary. ... Change is a scary thing, but it is also a good thing." (Sedentary, by the way, is definitely out on the third floor at 850 Bryant St. About one prosecutor who was seated outside his office last month, Millstein said disparagingly, "He's sluggish. ... Kind of typical.")
Other voices take issue with Breall's take on things. Many contend that Millstein's hyperactivity reveals neither rhyme nor reason.
"No one knows what the hell is going on," says one prosecutor whose star sank during the latest shake-up. As a consequence, the assistant DA adds, the average prosecutor is rather sullen these days: "Quiet. Distrustful. Do your work, and shut up."
Before his ascent to Hallinan's No. 2, S.F.'s criminal justice family had become reacquainted with David J. Millstein through a different role.