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Walker administration fires Bethel district attorney

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published February 23, 2015

BETHEL -- The Bethel-based district attorney is being fired effective March 9 from her position as lead prosecutor for a busy rural office that handles a large number of sex crimes and assaults.

June Stein, appointed Bethel district attorney in 2011 and a prosecutor for some 25 years, confirmed Monday afternoon that she was notified Sunday she was being "released" from her position.

Richard Svobodny, deputy attorney general, flew to Bethel on Sunday and met with her about the Walker administration decision, Stein said.

She read from a Feb. 22 letter from Svobodny that said, "This action is being taken at the direction of the governor as part of the transition of the new administration."

Stein previously served as Kenai district attorney and worked as an assistant attorney general in the state Department of Law's rural prosecution unit. The Bethel office, where she worked periodically as acting district attorney before getting the job, prosecutes cases out of Bethel and 56 surrounding villages.

Grace Jang, spokeswoman for Gov. Bill Walker, said the administration wouldn't comment on what happened because it was a personnel matter. She said she didn't know of any other district attorneys being fired.

Stein was considered a tough prosecutor by some of her colleagues.

But Jim Valcarce, a Bethel defense attorney who served on Walker's public safety committee during the transition, didn't see it that way. He said Monday he was thrilled Stein is being forced out.

"I have been advising anybody for the last four years, three years, as long as she's been here, that she was a disaster for Bethel," said Valcarce, who has worked in Bethel 20 years. "I have been singing that song for years, that she was the worst DA we have ever had in Bethel. Period."

He described her as too rigid and too set on sending people to jail, not willing to work toward reformative justice and programs that heal. She couldn't distinguish among different kinds of offenders, he said.

"What we have in this town is we have three types of people," Valcarce said. "Really, really bad people, right, bad criminals who need to be locked up. We have young people who need to be reformed. And we have a lot of really good people who make stupid mistakes when they're drunk."

But Stein's goal, he said, was the same for all: Jail. Stein resisted negotiations to reduce charges in marginal cases, as evidenced by a string of recent "not guilty" verdicts at trials, he said.

"She is treating everybody as 'I want a conviction and I want to put them in jail,' " Valcarce said.

Another private lawyer, Myron Angstman – who has 40 years of experience in Bethel and was the community's first public defender – said the Bethel district attorney's job is a particularly hard one, with a crush of cases, aggressive defense lawyers, sympathetic jurors and investigations by village officers who sometimes lacked experience or skill.

Stein is competent, committed and so hardworking that he could email her about a case any time of the day or night and she would respond quickly, a rarity in Bethel, Angstman said.

"I am very surprised that somebody in Juneau would say they could do better in Bethel," he said. "They have no idea what they are up against, I'm sure."

Stein said her office had lost about five cases at trial in the last month but that prosecutors did try to negotiate plea bargains in those cases. Two others – including one that she tried last week – resulted in guilty verdicts and another was split, with jurors finding not guilty on one count but guilty on two others. As to defendants with alcohol issues, she said she supports therapeutic court, which soon should be at its capacity of 15 participants.

The office has six assistant district attorneys, almost all with two years or less on the job. The most experienced, Chris Carpeneti, will handle administrative duties until a new DA is named, she said. There are 1,452 pending criminal cases in the office.

Stein embraced Bethel, buying a home in town and becoming involved in the local quilting community as a fan though she's not a quilter, she said. She's originally from New York City and worked as a prosecutor in New Mexico before moving to Alaska 14 years ago.

Editor's note: The original version of this story incorrectly summarized the comments of Bethel attorney Jim Valcarce. He did not describe Stein as a tough prosecutor or too tough for Bethel. He described her approach as rigid, said she was unwilling to negotiate lesser charges, and said she did not support restorative justice programs. He also called her "incompetent."

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