In a political race that already has more than its fair share of drama, Tulare County District Attorney candidate Ralph Kaelble has the endorsement of the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department, the Tulare County Corrections Association and police officer associations in Visalia, Exeter, Lindsay and Dinuba.
“It is a difficult move to back a challenger against a sitting district attorney,” Kaelble said. “I went into this knowing full well that there’s a good chance that a lot of people that say they’re going to back me are not going to back me when it comes down to signing on the dotted line, but they did.
“They want change,” he continued. “They want things to be better. They want the law enforcement community to be closer and to work together, and to get the things done that we’ve always gotten done, and I’m that person. I worked with the D.A.’s office for almost 14 years so they know me. These people that are endorsing me, they know who I am, they know what I’m about.”
Kaelble, who was born and raised in the Los Angeles area, graduated cum laude from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He received the Outstanding Student Award, the Abraham Krushkov Scholarship, and was a member of Phi Kappa Phi National Honor Society. He attended Loyola Law School in Los Angeles where he served as the student bar association president, was on the dean’s list, and received the dean’s service award.
After graduating and passing the California Bar Examination, he started his career as a deputy district attorney in Tulare County, working in Visalia, Porterville and Tulare, prosecuting misdemeanors, general felonies, juvenile crimes, welfare fraud, auto theft, auto insurance fraud, child molestation, crimes against peace officers, and homicides, before he was promoted to the position of supervising attorney.
Kaelble’s service with the D.A.’s office ended abruptly on January 2, 2013, when he was called to human resources.
“When I got there, I was told that my employment was no longer necessary with the district attorney’s office after almost 14 years of stellar experience,” he said, adding, “Every review I’ve gotten has been above average.
“I was not given any reason for it,” he added. “I was told, ‘Your services are no longer necessary. Here is your letter of termination.’”
The letter Kaelble was given read, “You are hereby notified that your services are no longer needed and are terminated… you are to remove your personal effects from the office, turn in your keys, your district attorney office identification card, your courthouse security ID and any other items or materials belonging to the county.”
Kaelble said he was given the option of resigning, keeping the mention of a termination off his resume. He took the resignation option so, technically, he did resign. He signed the resignation form letter he was given.
“You can call it what you want,” said Kaelble, who opened a law office in downtown Visalia in February. “They’re going to call it what they want. Yes, I was terminated by the district attorney’s office.
“What I can tell you is that maybe it was personal,” he continued, attempting to explain the reasons newly appointed (at the time) District Attorney Tim Ward decided to issue the termination letter. “Maybe he doesn’t like me, I don’t know. More than anything, it was probably because he was threatened by me. I am well-liked by law enforcement and I think that maybe in his mind he didn’t like the competition.”
Assistant District Attorney Shani Jenkins, Kaelble’s supervisor, was terminated at the same time.
Last month, Kaelble’s wife, Afreen, a 15-year veteran of the D.A.’s office, was given a similar letter. She also signed the form resignation letter, and has since obtained legal counsel.
“The challenge here with any personnel ruling is that I can’t discuss specifics,” said Ward (who will be interviewed in the Valley Voice in February) about Kaelble’s termination/resignation. “If memory serves me correctly, Ralph resigned.
“As district attorney, I have not nor will I make personnel decisions of this magnitude without consulting with the county counsel,” he added, before discussing the responsibilities he has as a county department head.
“One of the challenges is to maintain staff that not only do the other managers and leaders have confidence in, but that the office staff has confidence in and the county as well,” said Ward. “I have great confidence in the team we’ve assembled. We’re looking forward, not back.”
Regarding Afreen Kaelble’s termination/resignation, Ward said, “I know for a fact that Ms. Kaelble signed and turned in a resignation letter. I think it’s fair to say she resigned.”
“It’s not like she resigned because she was looking for greener pastures,” said Kaelble, who maintains that, “It’s not accurate the way that they’re saying it.
“This was a strategic move by my opponent,” said Kaelble. “He felt like he was going to try to hurt me as much as possible.
“This is not about my family,” he continued. “If it wasn’t my wife, it would be someone else. The fact of the matter is that you should not be in a position of power when you can do something like this to people just because of where their politics lie.”
Following his wife’s termination/resignation from the D.A.’s office, Kaelble issued a press release with the headline “Louisiana Style Politics Has No Place in the Central Valley.”
The press release quotes former Tulare County Assistant District Attorney Don Gallian: “I always found Afreen Kaelble to be an excellent prosecutor who was concerned for the victims of crime. I was very concerned to hear that she had been forced out of the district attorney’s office because she was married to a political opponent of the appointed district attorney. The people of Tulare County are never served when politics is put ahead of public safety as the primary concern of the appointed district attorney.”
Kaelble – who is quoted in the release as saying, “For someone who has been given the responsibility to protect our families from crime, this action only shows that playing politics trumps what is really important,” – was asked if the release was setting a negative tone for the campaign.
“Personally, I don’t think I set the tone,” he responded. “I think that my opponent set the tone by doing something like this at a time like this. I think what he did was negative. I think they way he did it was wrong, and if he does things that are wrong and negative, I think it’s my duty to call him on it. Frankly, if I wasn’t in the race against him, I would call him on it because I think that’s what we should do as citizens.
“I don’t think it sets a negative tone,” he repeated. “I think is shows people that in Tulare County today, the district attorney will try to crush you if you disagree with him.”
While with the district attorney’s office, Kaelble supervised the Porterville office for approximately three years.
“When I supervised there, I had a really good reputation, and one of the reasons is because I believe in an open office, I believe in communication between the agencies,” he said. “If they had a question, they would call me. They would call me about issues having to do with the team I supervised, but also they would call me when they couldn’t get a hold of someone else. If I couldn’t answer a question, I would get them the right answer.”
Kaelble said improving communication was one of the things he “would do differently” if he were elected Tulare County District Attorney.
“First of all, I would foster communication more than there’s ever been in all the years I’ve been with the district attorney’s office,” he said. “For instance, if you were a law enforcement officer and you submitted a case and we rejected it, and you were upset about it, then I would want you to come in and talk to me about it and maybe we could work it out. Either we can work it out or I would explain to you why we can’t work it out, but I have that open-door policy.”
Kaelble would also give access to his staff’s cell phone numbers to law enforcement and others.
“The D.A.’s office guarded those numbers for years,” he said. “It said right on the bottom of our phone list, ‘For internal use only. Don’t give this out. Don’t let anyone have this,’ like this was a big secret, but this is county government and we should be able to give our numbers out to people and have those people use those numbers. We’re public servants so we should be there for the public.”
Kaelble is also concerned that a lot of people don’t know what the district attorney’s office does.
“I want to go visit every part of the county,” said Kaelble, “not only visit them but be accessible to those parts of the county. (City Council Member) Amy Shuklian here in Visalia has office hours and she’ll announce it a couple weeks in advance that she will be wherever – Tazzaria, Starbucks – for two hours on this day or this night. I want to do that as district attorney of Tulare County. I want to do that because I want people to know what we do. I want people to voice their concerns to me because we need to be in tune with what the community wants.”
He would also provide 40-80 hours of training for new employees.
“You get hired and spend a day watching someone else and they say. ‘Here are your files. Go for it,’” he said about the current system. “The problem is we don’t have any real training. You end up with frustrated D.A.’s who don’t know what they’re doing,” he said. “But more importantly, they’re not really doing justice to our community because they just don’t know.
“Criminal law is pretty complicated,” he said. “You need to know how to prove a case. You need to know about sentencing.”
But isn’t this taught in law school?
“Not really,” Kaelble replied. “Right now, law school training is a little bit of everything, but when you get out of law school, you are not trained to be a prosecutor. You are not trained to be a defense attorney. You are not trained to be a divorce lawyer. You learn all that when you get out. The law degree is the law degree. That gets you the open door to get you to all those other things.”
Kaelble would like to see senior or supervising attorneys in the district attorney’s office training new employees, who would be hired three or four at a time. He also believes in ridealongs, having his staff accompany local police and sheriff’s officers during their investigations.
“I think we should be involved in the training of new officers too,” said Kaelble. “Law enforcement gets no more than one day in training in the academy on how to testify – actually on the stand, being cross-examined. You can have an officer who is a stellar police officer – he knows what he is doing, he collects the right evidence, he’s doing everything right – but when it comes to courtroom time, he’s not well prepared. He doesn’t know how to testify. He gets really nervous.”
Kaelble anticipates a lot of hard work and meeting a lot of people during this campaign.
“I’m not looking to make it a negative campaign,” he said. “This is a campaign where I believe I’m the better candidate and I want to get people to see that, and that’s about all I’m trying to do.”