When civil rights attorney Pamela Price challenged District Attorney Nancy O’Malley in 2018, she was part of a wave of progressive candidates seeking to unseat sitting district attorneys and rattle the status quo.

Price was the subject of attack ads paid for by an independent expenditure committee seeded with money from police officers associations in Los Angeles, San Jose, and Oakland. Ultimately, she lost in a race that was closer than many predicted. 

Now, as Price prepares to run again in 2022, she says she has uncovered evidence that members of O’Malley’s office were working with the police union-backed independent expenditure committee, in violation of state law, and campaigned for their boss on company time using their government email system, another violation of the government code.

Price on Wednesday said her campaign obtained hundreds of pages of emails sent by dozens of deputy district attorneys—and are expecting more to be released soon. The emails came to her attention via Ryan LaLonde, an Alameda resident and Price supporter who filed a public records request in April. 

Some of the emails released by the campaign Wednesday show top members of the DA’s office openly campaigning for O’Malley—and against Price—by asking others to attend candidate forums, drafting thank you letters to contributors, and calling on the rank and file to walk precincts and help with phone banking. 

One of the people who is alleged to have used a work email address to engage in campaigning is Deputy District Attorney Terry Wiley. Wiley kept O’Malley informed of Price’s endorsements and activities and urged colleagues to attend a candidate forum to show support for their boss, the emails show.

Wiley is one of three candidates who have announced they’re running in 2022 to replace the retiring O’Malley. The other two are county prosecutor Jimmie Wilson and Price. 

Some of the internal emails appear to have been sent to leaders of police unions who helped organize an independent expenditure committee that ran attack ads against Price.

James R. Sutton, an attorney representing Price, on Tuesday filed a complaint with the Fair Political Practices Commission—the state’s political watchdog—allegeding O’Malley’s office illegally coordinated with the independent expenditure committee and her campaign should have reported on campaign finance disclosures “in-kind contributions” from her employees who used work time and email to support her re-election. 

Sutton contends members of the DA’s office also may have violated a section of the state penal code that makes it a crime for a public officer to misappropriate public funds because they may have used county computers and email accounts to communicate about an election campaign. 

The election attorney, Price and her supporters at a press conference held Wednesday outside Rene C. Davidson Courthouse in Oakland also called on Attorney General Rob Bonta to investigate the matter. 

“On the one hand it’s very common for a government employee to make a mistake and accidentally use his or her government email to work on a campaign,” Sutton said. “But honestly I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a pervasive and long term misuse of government emails for blatant political activities. It is noteworthy because it is done by deputy district attorneys who should know the law and have a duty to know the law.” 

Price said the emails show county resources were used “to gain an unfair advantage in the race for district attorney.” 

A District Attorney spokeswoman on Wednesday said the office had no comment. 

In the 2018 election, Price won nearly every precinct in the flatlands of Berkeley and Oakland but lost to O’Malley, who received 59% of the vote. Voters in the Berkeley and Oakland hills, southern Alameda County and the Tri-Valley overwhelmingly chose O’Malley.

Until Price decided to run, it had been decades before any sitting district attorney faced a challenger. Tom Orloff, who became the county’s top cop in 1994 after Jack Meehan retired, ran unopposed in every election until he retired in 2009. O’Malley was appointed to the seat and did not face an opponent until 2018. 

An email from Deputy District Attorney Colleen McMahon to a colleague of what appears to be a draft of a thank you note to contributors to an independent expenditure committee that opposed Price and supported their boss O’Malley. Credit: Courtesy of Ryan LaLonde

That year saw progressive DA hopefuls run for seats in San Diego, Sacramento, and Alameda counties. They were backed by a political action committee known as the California Justice & Public Safety PAC and largely funded by billionaire George Soros, who spent big on ads supporting Price.

At the same time, the election here also saw an unprecedented amount of money flow into O’Malley’s campaign from police unions. A month before election day, the San Jose Police Officers’ Association and the Los Angeles Police Protective League created the “Californians United for Safe Neighborhoods and Schools opposing Pamela Price for District Attorney 2018,” with money from the LAPD officers’ association, the Oakland police union and the California Correctional Officers Association. 

The PAC paid for mailers criticizing Price for pledging not to prosecute misdemeanors. Price had said she wanted to stop prosecuting misdemeanors but later said her comment was taken out of context. One mailer had a picture of a pedophile in a smoky room staring at a computer and typing “Thanks, Pamela Price.” 

In his complaint with the FPPC, Sutton says some emails show employees of the District Attorney’s Office were using their work email to communicate with the principal officers and campaign consultants for the anti-Price PAC. Deputy District Attorney Colleen McMahon shows up on an email chain “about raising additional funds in order to pay for and disseminate anti-Price digital ads,” Sutton wrote in the complaint. The email chain also included three campaign ads opposing Price as attachments. 

“This one email chain itself warrants an FPPC investigation,” Sutton wrote. 

In another email sent after the election, McMahon sent Deputy District Attorney John Brouhard what appears to be a draft of a thank you note to contributors to the independent expenditure committee. The FPPC complaint says the thank you note was intended for police officer unions and other contributors. 

“Dear XXX … Your agency’s generous donation helped pay for four anti-Price mailers and a digital ad. Without those hit-pieces, this election may not have had such a favorable outcome. Please know how grateful we are for your help and dedication to keeping Alameda County safe,” McMahon wrote in the email. Attempts to reach McMahon were not successful.

It is illegal under the state government code for a candidate’s campaign to coordinate with an independent expenditure committee, which are not subject to fundraising limits. 

Sutton’s letter sent to Angela Brereton, the FPPC’s Chief of Enforcement Division, calls for an investigation into the misuse of government email accounts. In 2018, at least 31 District Attorney employees sent or received 35 campaign-related emails, according to the complaint. Using a government email system for campaign purposes violates state law

The emails show deputy district attorneys were monitoring Price’s campaign and sharing information, such as Price’s endorsements, with O’Malley. On April 21, 2017, Deputy District Attorney Wiley wrote a note to O’Malley and Assistant District Attorney Kevin Dunleavy to make them “aware Pamela Price has people handing out business cards.” 

Wiley sent an email to several colleagues asking them to attend a May 23, 2018 candidate forum at an Oakland church. “We are now getting down to the wire of this election. If you have not attended any of these candidate’s forums, they can be a hostile environment towards Nancy in particular,” Wiley wrote. “We would like as many of you as possible to attend this candidates forum. We’d like to show the people of Oakland the diversity of our office and provide support for Nancy. Please feel free to call me if you have any questions. She needs our support.” 

Wiley did not respond to an email seeking comment before publication time. 

Other emails were sent or received by Assistant Chief of Inspectors Craig Chew, a retired Oakland police officer. On May 25, about two weeks before the election, Chew used his government account to forward an email containing a letter of support for O’Malley urging the DA’s rank and file to walk precincts and participate in phone banking. 

“Price has turned the election into a negative attack on our law enforcement officers in Alameda County and the justice system as a whole,” the letter he forwarded said. “Price’s attack directly affects the safety of our law enforcement officers, the communities we serve and the relationships we have worked so hard to build.” 

LaLonde, the Alameda resident who obtained the records, said the DA’s office so far has only produced 20% of the documents disclosable under his records request. 

Correction: We mistakenly stated that Craig Chew authored an email asking other staff in the DA’s office to support O’Malley’s campaign. According to the district attorney’s office, Chew did not write the email, but he did forward it using his county email account.

David DeBolt reported on City Hall and policing for The Oaklandside. He spent 12 years working for daily newspapers in the Bay Area, including on the Peninsula and Solano County. He joined the Bay Area News Group in 2012 where he covered a variety of beats, most recently as a senior breaking news reporter. During his time at BANG, DeBolt covered Oakland City Hall, the Raiders stadium saga and the A’s search for a new ballpark, as well as the Oakland Police Department and police reform efforts. He was part of the East Bay Times staff honored with the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News for coverage of the Ghost Ship warehouse fire.