Salt Lake County Attorney Dave Yocom is suffering from a severe case of schizophrenia .
At least that's the diagnosis of Yocom's colleague's, his staff -- and the patient himself. The alleged cause of Yocom's condition: his job. He heads the civil division for the county, defending the county against civil lawsuits. And he leads the prosecutors in all county criminal matters."Schizophrenia is the best way to describe trying to balance two jobs. I'm always walking a tightrope. I feel like I'm arguing out of one side of my mouth and then the other," said Yocom.
The prescribed cure: corrections and court leaders are proposing scrapping the "failed" county attorney system for a career system. A full-time district attorney, elected on a non-partisan basis, would become a professional prosecutor funded by the state. Elected partisan county attorneys would assume all civil responsibilities.
The Commission of Justice in the 21st century supports studying the idea of switching to a district attorney system because it would likely improve the quality of justice in many counties that now can't afford the cost of prosecuting complex cases. But the commission recognizes that the cost of creating a state prosecutor network while retaining the county-attorney system may be substantially higher.
Several justice commission members are also serving on a committee that is examining the proposition. Led by attorney John T. Nielsen and Grethe Peterson, the committee members plan to have legislation drafted in time for the 1992 session.
Yocom gives an example of the conflict created by "having two heads":
Recently he advised his prosecutors to go before Utah judges and demand tough jail time for convicted criminals. Later that same day, he was forced to request the release of prisoners from the jail to protect the county against a lawsuit because overcrowded jail conditions are unconstitutional.
Prosecuting criminals and defending civil matters presents an inherent conflict of interest, he says.
The deaths of three teenagers killed at a Salt Palace concert in January illustrate the tension created by representing the civil and criminal sides of a controversial case. "One part of my office investigated possible criminal negligence while the other end looked out for any financial responsibility of the county to the injured persons," he said.
At the end of the investigation, Yocom -- whose job it is to protect the county from litigation -- announced that no county employees had acted recklessly; the county was blameless. But the father of one of the victims who suffocated at the bottom of a pile of fans contends that Yocom's office wasn't forthright in its investigation and has filed a federal lawsuit against the county, alleging negligence and a conscious disregard for safety.
Because Yocom, a Democrat, was elected on a partisan basis, he is vulnerable to accusations of "playing politics" when the prosecution of a Republican is pursued or allegations against a fellow Democrat are dropped.
In the past, perceived conflicts of interest have cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Does the name Ted Cannon conjure up images of expensive court battles?
A Salt Lake County grand jury spent nearly $120,000 to investigate allegations of misconduct against the former Salt Lake county attorney. Cannon was indicted for alleged sexual abuse, sexual harassment, criminal defamation and misuse of public funds. The Republican charged that his accusers had political motives. Eariler in his administration, Democrats accused Cannon of misusing his prosecution powers when he doggedly pursued theft and ethics charges against Democrat County Treasurer Art Monson. The charges were later dismissed.