COQUILLE — For the past two months, R. Paul Frasier has served in a position he’s wanted much of his life. Now he wants to make it official.
The Coos County District Attorney, who took over for DA Paul Burgett when he resigned Dec. 31, is running for district attorney in the upcoming May election.
“It’s kind of been a lifelong dream of mine to be involved in criminal prosecution,” said Frasier, the son of a retired Oregon State Police trooper. (But) “My dad wasn’t wild about me being a police officer. … To me, it was more fun to be in the courtroom.”
A 17-year-veteran of the Coos County DA’s Office, Frasier was the chief deputy district attorney when Gov. Ted Kulongoski appointed him to serve out the remainder of DA Paul Burgett’s term. Burgett resigned after the county cut a number of positions when Congress failed to renew federal timber subsidies. Layoffs included 40 Sheriff’s Office deputies and two people from his office.
Frasier has worked on two controversial cases that drew criticism from the community, involving a hit-and-run and a police use-of-force case. He said neither impacted his decision to run, and he encourages community members to talk with him when they have questions about a case.
“That’s part of the job of being the district attorney. Sometimes you have to make a hard call the public might not agree with,” Frasier said. “You have to do what is legally correct. And you have to do what the evidence supports.
“You are going to have good days and bad days in terms of how people view your job performance.”
Frasier will be walking into anything but an ideal situation with limited staff and the possibility of further staffing cuts in the near future, but he said he is not deterred by the office’s mounting problems. Instead, he said he plans to find a way to stabilize funding for his office while remaining available to law enforcement and upholding his part of the criminal justice system.
“That’s going to be my first and foremost priority,” Frasier said of funding. “We cannot prosecute everything with the staff we have now. If additional cuts (are made) to the office, we are going to be in a world of hurt, not that we aren’t there already, but it’s going to be worse.”
Frasier said he simply doesn’t have enough people with enough experience to handle serious crimes. This means any case dealing with death, a life-threatening injury or felony sex crimes will fall to his shoulders.
“What it means is that while I’m working on that, I can’t do other things,” Frasier said. That case load will prevent him from helping his younger staff and dealing with administrative issues. Of the five staff attorneys, one has 12 years of experience but most of it is in juvenile law, and the other four have three years or less experience. In fact, two of the attorneys have less than four months’ experience, Frasier said.
John Griffith, chairman of the Coos County Board of Commissioners, said he considers Frasier to be an honorable, hard-working man in a difficult position. He said the budget cuts that came when the county lost half of its discretionary general fund hit the DA’s Office hard.
“It’s made it even harder on the DA’s Office than it was before,” Griffith said, adding that the issue is a problem for the entire county. “It makes it hard for everybody to provide services at an adequate level.”
For the DA, it’s a Catch-22: Frasier said he won’t have much time to help tackle ways to support the budget and if he loses any more staff members, it is very likely that certain crimes will not be prosecuted. He added that if other departments aren’t brought back to a certain level, such as the Coos County jail, it won’t matter what his office does.
“If I don’t have a place to put the criminals when I prosecute them, what sense does it make to bring my office back to full staff?” Frasier said.
The DA’s Office lost a five-year veteran of the office and a legal secretary, who were both laid off during last year’s spate of layoffs, and his last position also was cut after he became the DA. Frasier said the office is already treating some cases differently. For example, people caught shoplifting or stealing are only receiving fines for their crimes. They no longer have to appear in court.
“I think that’s the wrong message to be sending,” Frasier said. If the DA’s Office loses another attorney, Frasier said staff will have to begin prioritizing what they prosecute. “It (will mean) if something gets stolen from you … it means they are not going to get prosecuted.”
Frasier said he hopes more funding also is brought to the South Coast Interagency Narcotics Team and the county’s juvenile department, which deals with young offenders.
“If we can correct their behavior before they turn 18, than I won’t have to deal with them as an adult, which I believe everyone would agree with,” the DA said.
Carole Hamilton, the director of the public defenders office, said she’s known Frasier since she began working there in 1996. Although their jobs often put them in adversarial positions, Hamilton said Frasier has a lot of integrity and she supports his decision to run for DA.
“I think it’s great that he’s running for DA and I wish him the best at that. I think he’d do a good job,” Hamilton said. “I think he really wants to run an efficient and high-quality office, and the interest he displays is essential in achieving that goal.”
Burgett said Frasier was his “right-hand man” for years and believes the DA is highly experienced and has strong ethics. He said Frasier is a prosecutor in cases of judicial ethics for the Oregon State Bar and is an instructor for the national and Oregon District Attorneys Association.
“I think Paul is the most qualified person in the county to be district attorney,” Burgett said. “You really couldn’t ask for much more as a district attorney. … I’m going to vote for him.”
Frasier, who grew up in Lakeview, holds a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Oregon and a doctoral degree from the Willamette University College of Law. He began his legal career in 1984, when he began working in the Josephine County DA’s Office as a deputy district attorney. He came to Coos County in 1990 as a chief deputy district attorney and worked as the special narcotics prosecutor and forfeiture counsel for the SCINT for about seven years before returning to his original position.
“I’ve never been inclined to be on the defense side of the bar. Being in a DA’s Office was something that very much appealed to me,” Frasier said.
So far, Frasier is the only candidate to file for the DA position. The deadline for filing is Tuesday.