District Attorney Clarkson “defamed” defense attorneys in political mailer, attorneys’ letter says

A copy of a mailer promoting the re-election of Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson. (Courtesy/Virginia Norblad)

A recent campaign mailer promoting the re-election of Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson prompted 11 criminal defense attorneys to contend she defamed them. 

The mailer boosted tensions in the race for district attorney, taking aim at the attorneys and others who have made cash contributions to Spencer Todd, a Salem public defender and the incumbent Clarkson’s opponent in the May 17 primary.

The campaign has grown costly, with Clarkson and Todd so far spending a combined $386,000 for a nonpartisan office in which there has rarely been a contested race. As of Monday, the two campaigns held a total of $61,000 in cash, signaling voters are likely to hear more from Clarkson and Todd in the closing days of the primary.

Clarkson’s flier generating the controversy is a stark, slick product sent to voters soon after mail-in ballots went out. Its tone is ominous at a time when polling shows crime issues are among the most important to Oregon voters this year. 

“You know a man by the company he keeps” the flier says and asks,”So why is Spencer Todd paling [sic] around with defense attorneys & convicted criminals?” 

A different version of the campaign flier, which Todd said arrived more recently in mailboxes, referred to him as someone “supported by criminals and those who want to defund the police.” 

The flier named what it described as an “army of criminal defense attorneys” and two other contributors to Todd’s campaign. 

“Tell the criminals and those who defend them that our Marion County District Attorney’s Office is not for sale,” it said.

That prompted 11 attorneys to write Clarkson on May 5 that her mailer portrayed criminal defense attorneys as “so reprehensible that merely associating with us tarnishes other people’s reputations.” 

They said Clarkson also falsely implied they would try to buy better results for their clients from her office.

“We have done nothing to deserve this except represent people on criminal charges as per the constitutional mandates of our legal system,” they said in the letter. “At least one of us has never had a case with you. Two of us are actually directly related to two current employees of yours!”

The letter demanded a retraction and apology from Clarkson.

In a statement Monday to Salem Reporter, Clarkson said, “I am sorry if the mailer was interpreted as anything other than it was meant to be: a description of the very different visions of public safety that me and my opponent have.”

She didn’t respond to a voice message or written questions about who funded the mailer or how many were mailed.

Todd cast the campaign piece as having wider impact than trying to persuade voters.

He said the mailer is potentially damaging to the future of public defense and criminal justice at a time Marion County and the state is already short of public defenders – attorneys appointed at public expense to represent indigent people accused of crimes. 

“This is exactly the kind of thing that makes it harder for us to find people to do this job because it’s a kind of thankless job that nobody wants to do,” he told Salem Reporter Monday. “Now you’re subject to attacks from the elected DA saying you’re somehow lesser than or bad or immoral or, in this case, the implication that you lack integrity is outrageous.”

Todd said while he has focused his campaign on needed changes in the district attorney’s office, Clarkson has repeatedly tried to “punch down” as the incumbent by attacking him for his inexperience and the fact that he is a public defender. 

“I guess she doesn’t want to talk about the future and what she’s going to change because she doesn’t want to change. She just wants to win. She feels entitled to hold this role,” he said. 

Clarkson told Salem Reporter that Marion County hasn’t seen a contested district attorney race in nearly 40 years. She ran unopposed for district attorney in the May 2018 election and was set to take over in January 2019, but Gov. Kate Brown appointed her the post three months early to replace Walt Beglau when he stepped down. 

“Our community is just not used to the intensity it brings,” she said in an email Monday. “While it is understandable that some folks are responding strongly to this mailer, the information included was all factual and public and was intended to highlight the stark contrast between me and my opponent. Our differences are certainly reflected in the support we have received, both via endorsements and financially.” 

A copy of a mailer promoting the re-election of Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson that her opponent, Spencer Todd, said arrived more recently in mailboxes. (Courtesy/Spencer Todd)

State campaign finance records showed that as of Monday, Clarkson had raised $189,178 in contributions, with about one-third coming from a single source – the Oregon Realtors Political Action Committee. Clarkson reported the Salem-based committee has spent $56,350 on her behalf, including a $15,250 expense on April 29 for “mailer.”

Clarkson didn’t respond to a request for comment about the Realtors group but Shayna Olson, spokeswoman for Oregon Association of Realtors, said the group didn’t pay for the controversial mailer.

“Our Mid-valley members have enjoyed a productive relationship with D.A. Clarkson for years as deputy district attorney and since being appointed D.A. in 2019. Although the D.A. race is not typically a contested one, when D.A. Clarkson drew a challenger, we performed our due diligence and interviewed both candidates,” Olson said in an email.

Clarkson said in her email Monday that she values the work of criminal defense attorneys. 

“Their professionalism and expertise is absolutely necessary for our system of justice to work effectively,” Clarkson wrote. “I truly regret that any defense attorney read that as an attack on their work. It was simply pointing out their significant support of my opponent in his attempt to be our county’s public safety leader.”

Todd noted that two Marion County attorneys who signed the letter, Catherine Trottman and David Kuhns, are related to deputy district attorneys in Clarkson’s office.

 “Paige is also essentially saying that her employees spend time with this army of deplorables,” Todd said.

The letter said many of the attorneys rely on their reputations to do retained work, not just appointed, and that some practice family, juvenile or civil law involving the state Department of Human Services or Department of Justice.

“We take pride in having a good relationship with other members of the bar and judiciary. You have needlessly and with malice affected the business of our law practices,” the letter said.

The attorneys said in the letter they are determining whether Clarkson violated professional ethics by implying someone is deplorable for associating with them. 

The letter was signed by Trottman, Kuhns, Andy Acosta, George Price, Jeff Jorgensen, Laura Schifano, Martin Habekost, Nick Howard, Olcott Thompson, Tiffany Humphrey and Zach Causey. Several have contributed to Todd’s campaign.

Paul DeMuniz, a retired chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, said that criminal defense attorneys play a critical role in the U.S. justice system, and the right to an attorney is enshrined in the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution.

“We demand accountability of lawbreakers but we demand that that accountability be assessed fairly,” he said. “Fairness is not self-executing.”

DeMuniz called the work of criminal defense “an honorable profession.”

Clarkson said she had her opponent have vastly different jobs and experience. 

“The work of a prosecutor is to seek justice. The work of a criminal defense attorney is to zealously advocate for their client, thereby minimizing accountability,” she said.

Clarkson used her flier to publicly attack two of Todd’s donors.

He has out-raised Clarkson by about $100,000, listing total contributions as of Monday of $258,697.

Clarkson zeroed in on a $50,000 contribution from Aaron Boonshoft, who the flier described as a chief petitioner on a ballot initiative to legalize prostitution as well as a “client of…sex work,” quoting a description from a Willamette Week article and omitting the words “legal, consensual.” Boonshoft, Todd’s largest donor, is a Portland philanthropist who has backed a ballot initiative to decriminalize – not legalize – sex work in Oregon, according to the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

Clarkson also referred to a partner in a company that donated to Todd as someone convicted of “multiple misdemeanors” in 2018. She cited the company by name, Opal Creek Capital, which campaign finance records showed is Todd’s second-largest donor with $21,000.

Her reference to convictions was to Tim Dupell of Salem.

Dupell pleaded guilty in February 2019 to two counts of second-degree criminal mischief, driving under the influence, possession of cocaine and reckless driving in Marion County Circuit Court. According to court records, he damaged property belonging to the city of Salem and another person and drove under the influence of a controlled substance. He was put on probation and the driving charge was dismissed after he completed a diversion program.

Rachel Alexander contributed reporting.

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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