Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton speaks at a 2017 news conference. She's being challenged by Deputy DA Mary Knox. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group via Getty Images)
Police groups have poured more than $250,000 into defeating Contra Costa County District Attorney Diana Becton since her office’s successful prosecution and conviction last fall of a sheriff’s deputy for a 2018 fatal on-duty shooting, county elections filings show.
Meanwhile, a pro-criminal justice reform group backed by billionaire George Soros has piped more than $400,000 into an independent campaign to reelect Becton and fend off attacks from her challenger — and colleague — Deputy District Attorney Mary Knox.
The race, which will be decided on June 7, is shaping up to be a proxy battle for the dueling sides in California’s larger criminal justice debate over both police accountability and criminal sentencing. Becton is considered to be among a small but growing group of progressive prosecutors in California, one that includes San Francisco DA Chesa Boudin and Los Angeles DA George Gascón. At least outside her county, Becton has largely escaped the criticism and scrutiny many of her peers have faced.
Becton’s decision to prosecute Hall — which came more than two years after the shooting, and in the near-immediate aftermath of his second fatal on-duty shooting — angered a number of influential county law enforcement officials. After Hall’s conviction and sentencing, Contra Costa Sheriff David Livingston called the charges "abhorrent." Knox, while criticizing Becton for her handling of the case, has made conflicting statements on whether she would have pursued charges.
Knox is a fellow Democrat who has served as a prosecutor in the DA's office for nearly four decades. Last month, she told The Mercury News editorial board she would not have charged Hall in the case, arguing he acted within department policy and was “justified in using deadly force.” But in an interview this week with KQED, she said she was not familiar with all the facts of the case and has “never taken a position on the conviction,” adding, “It would be irresponsible of me to do that because I was not the assigned prosecutor.”
Knox said she objects to the “lack of transparency” in the charging process, criticizing Becton for how long it took her prosecutors to file the charges.
Knox told KQED that the reputation of the DA’s office, which she called “the gold standard in ethics and effective prosecution,” has suffered under Becton’s leadership.
Knox also defended the support she’s received from law enforcement, insisting it won’t prevent her from holding them accountable.
“Throughout my career, there have been very difficult prosecutions of police officers, undertaken with fairness and transparency,” she said, citing the office’s 1988 murder conviction of an off-duty officer and its recent prosecution of a county narcotics enforcement commander. “Police officers in this county know I hold them all to a very high ethical standard … and I 100% will continue to hold them to the same standards as the DA — frankly, I think that’s why they are supporting me.”
Knox also raised questions about Becton’s ability to work effectively with law enforcement partners, a relationship she called critical.
Champagne Brown, Becton’s campaign manager, shot back, arguing that Becton and her office collaborate with law enforcement every day.
"Prosecutors have a duty to seek justice for victims, no matter who the perpetrator is, and to hold anyone who harms our communities accountable,” she said. “District Attorney Becton has demonstrated her commitment to upholding that duty, despite the opposition.”
Many candidates for elected office have made it a policy to decline money from police unions, she added, “and that should be especially true for candidates for an office that works so closely with law enforcement.”
Police groups have been making their contributions through Contra Costans for Progress and Justice, an independent political action committee supporting Knox. The group was formed in October as Hall stood trial for the 2018 killing of Laudemer Arboleda, a 33-year-old Filipino man who, according to his family, suffered from paranoia and other mental health issues.
By January, the committee raised $54,000 from a handful of police unions representing officers in the county. The largest chunk — $40,000 — came from the Contra Costa County Deputy Sheriff’s Association. Police unions in Concord, Pleasant Hill, Brentwood and Moraga also pitched in.
This year, the deputy sheriff’s association ramped up its giving, donating another $80,000 in January, $50,000 in April — following Hall’s sentencing in March — and $40,000 in May.
And after the sentence was announced, law enforcement groups from outside Contra Costa County got involved. The Oakland Police Officers’ Association gave $10,000 in early May, followed shortly by a $20,000 contribution from the Peace Officers Research Association of California.
George Driscoll, treasurer of Contra Costans for Progress and Justice, and a former investigator for the district attorney’s office — who lost his job after being convicted of a felony DUI — told KQED in an email that the timing of the committee’s creation and any of its donations have “nothing to do with anyone or anything else, including former deputy Hall.”
“The independent expenditure effort was created for two reasons. One, Becton has a failed record as District Attorney, and our community is hurting as a result,” he wrote. “Two, I believe Mary Knox's credentials and record as a skilled prosecutor and strong leader will benefit Contra Costa County and make our neighborhoods safer. These are the only two reasons why I am supporting Mary Knox.”
For her part, Knox has criticized Becton for accepting several contributions she says represent conflicts of interest, including a $500 donation from John Burris, a well-known civil rights attorney who represented Laudemer Arboleda’s family in the Hall shooting, and who regularly sues police agencies on behalf of people harmed by law enforcement.
The Soros stream
But Knox is by no means the only candidate receiving financial support from outside the county. On May 13, the left-leaning California Justice and Public Safety PAC disclosed more than $408,000 in spending on digital advertisements aimed at both supporting Becton and attacking Knox. That group is backed by billionaire financier George Soros, a well-known funder of progressive causes, and a high-profile target for conservatives. His group also has been a big player in other prosecutors’ races around the country in recent years, including Becton’s 2018 campaign.
Knox called that money “just another attempt by an out-of-state billionaire to buy the election of the Contra Costa DA,” saying she knew that “whatever I raised, they would out-fund.”
“I have been campaigning since July of last year, because I knew this was going to happen,” Knox added. “I have been out literally in every community in Contra Costa County, talking to anyone … and I have raised over $500,000 from over 1,300 donors in Contra Costa County. The message of our campaign is resonating.”
But Brown, Becton’s campaign manager, argued there’s no comparison between the Soros donation and the money Knox received from police groups.
"This is about accountability,” Brown said in a statement. “It’s false equivalency to compare this to the unprecedented hundreds of thousands of dollars that police unions … have spent to influence this race after the historic sentencing of Andrew Hall.”