Contra Costa DA resigns, pleads no contest to perjury

The embattled Contra Costa County District Attorney Mark Peterson resigned Wednesday and pleaded no contest to a single charge of perjury amid the fallout from a political misconduct scandal that’s plagued him for months.

Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Theresa J. Canepa sentenced Peterson to three years probation, 250 hours of community service and a $300 fine.

State prosecutors had argued for a slightly more severe sentence when they asked the judge to at least give Peterson a term of home confinement.

David Bass, a prosecutor with the California Attorney General’s Office, which was handling the case against Peterson, said:

“This is a serious offense. … The attorney general wants to ensure that all people are treated the same under the law.”

Peterson didn’t address the court directly, except to answer some routine questions about his plea agreement, and he left the courtroom without making a statement.

His attorney, Ted Cassman, said to the judge prior to Peterson’s sentencing that his client had:

“made a terrible, terrible, tragic mistake. … This procedure is a tragedy, Shakespearian in its dimension.”

The case against the now-former district attorney began in December 2016 when the Fair Political Practices Commission fined him $45,000 for violating the California Political Reform Act by spending $66,372 on personal expenses.

Then in May, a civil grand jury sought Peterson’s ouster, saying his conduct amounted to “willful or corrupt misconduct in office.”

Peterson was due to be arraigned in a rare civil procedure in superior court on the grand jury’s accusations today when, just hours before his scheduled court appearance, state prosecutors filed 12 felony counts of perjury and one felony count of grand theft against him.

Peterson agreed to plead guilty to the perjury charge rather than face the possibility of two trials, either one of which could have resulted in his removal from political office.

As part of his plea agreement, the judge dismissed the remaining criminal charges and the grand jury’s civil accusations.

Peterson, who first took office in 2010 and won re-election in 2014, admitted to the FPPC that he misappropriated the funds, saying he considered the money to be loans that he was paying back.

The money came from Peterson’s political campaign coffers and it is a violation of state law to use it for anything other than campaign or political expenses.

Peterson spent the money on meals, clothes and other personal expenses, but failed to report any of that spending in his campaign finance disclosure documents filed with the state.

He admitted the spending only after he became the target of a state audit.

Peterson said in December:

“I am humbled and embarrassed by my mistakes.”

Peterson reached an agreement with the FPPC’s Enforcement Division on the fine and paid back all the money he took from the campaign account.

Outside of his legal difficulties, Peterson also lost the support of the prosecutors working under him. In May, the county’s District Attorneys’ Association passed a vote of no-confidence leveled at him.

Now that the county’s top law enforcement job is vacant, it will be up to the Contra Costa Board of Supervisors to appoint a temporary replacement, according to Chief Assistant District Attorney Doug McMaster.