David Lack (right)
Paul Wellman

Poor David Lack. I don’t know whether to feel sorry for the guy or to kick him while he’s down. I’m inclined to do both. Not so Brian Cota, the prosecuting attorney who put Lack away in 2014 on a nine-year sentence for bank fraud and embezzlement. If Cota has his way, he’ll send Lack off to yet another stint in the hoosegow. That is, if Lack doesn’t die first from cancer.

Back in the day, Lack ​— ​a onetime Minnesota farm boy and successful building contractor ​— ​was a certified highflier in statewide and local Republican Party circles. One year he donated $42,000 to political campaigns. The office walls of Lack Construction were plastered with glossy photos of Lack ​— ​friendly, easygoing, and a little goofy ​— ​gripping-’n’-grinning with every major Republican figure dating back to Ronald Reagan.

I didn’t really know Lack, but I liked him anyway. I mention him now because he’s becoming the poster child for Proposition 57, the state ballot initiative passed in 2016 that grants early release to nonviolent criminals. During his three years behind bars, Lack has been a model prisoner. He takes classes. Before his conviction, he had zero record. If he ever hurt a fly, no one’s said so. And recently he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Do we really want to spend $80,000 a year to pack him in the sardine can of Soledad State Prison?

Last September, the state parole board answered with a resounding no and granted Lack an early release under the terms of Prop. 57. Two months later, however, state parole officers decided he needed to marinate behind bars at least another 18 months. He posed too great a threat to reoffend, they concluded. (And Cota is itching to try him for another fraud case.) Lack appealed, but last month a judge ruled against him. To date, Lack is one of 78 Santa Barbarans in state prison seeking early release: 60 have been denied, 11 were released, and seven are pending. The District Attorney’s Office opposed 37. According to one of the six attorneys who’ve worked for Lack, the rules and regulations surrounding Prop. 57 are a total crapshoot with little rhyme or reason.

According to his detractors, the real Lack was a scheming chameleon who ingratiated himself with the mama bears of the Republican Party, promising to marry their daughters and then leaving them at the altar. In the meantime, Lack would secure lucrative construction contracts with these mothers, take their money, but not finish the job. One matron he ripped off to the tune of $300,000 returned the favor, ripping him a tearful new one on the witness stand.

The bulk of Lack’s graft involved lying to two local banks to secure about $900,000 in business loans. He claimed he owned three properties ​— ​two in Santa Barbara and one in Texas ​— ​that the banks could use for collateral should he default, which he did. Guess what? Lack totally lied. He didn’t own anything. Never has. Had the banks done any due diligence at all, they would have discovered this in five seconds. But this was back in 2008, when “due diligence” was a dirty word. Banks were all about doing the deal, even if it involved making bad loans to millions of people who obviously would never pay them back. When those loans came due, banks failed, the stock market tanked, and the real estate bubble burst. It was the World Wide Recession. No bankers went to jail, and we bailed out the banks. In this context, I always thought maybe Cota went after the wrong guy. Cota has generously pointed out the error of such thinking. It was risky real estate loans, he stressed, that caused the recession, not business loans secured by a lie ​— ​like Lack’s. Point taken.

Prop. 57 is one of many initiatives passed in recent years to address the state’s outrageously overcrowded prison system. Right now, there are about 120,000 people serving time in California prisons. The system is designed to hold 85,000. In 2010, there were nearly 170,000. A big reason for the overcrowding was a bunch of get-tough-on-crime laws that required mandatory sentences, one of the biggest being California’s Three Strikes law, passed by voters in 1994.

I only mention Three Strikes now because back then Lack functioned as political alter ego to Michael Huffington, then Republican congressmember from Santa Barbara running for Senate against Dianne Feinstein. Also the then husband of Arianna Huffington, he was a Texas oil zillionaire who spent $28 million of his own money before losing by 1.9 percent. A walking, talking existential crisis, Michael Huffington needed to buy instant street cred with his party’s red-meat crowd, which worried ​— ​correctly, it would later turn out ​— ​that he was gay. He did so not merely by supporting Three Strikes ​— ​everybody, including Feinstein, did ​— ​but by leading the campaign’s fundraising effort, donating $300,000 of his own money. Lack was with him every step of the way, cheering him on. California is not the only state with a three-strikes law; it is, however, the only one that allowed nonserious crimes ​— ​such as shoplifting ​— ​to be counted as the final strike, requiring a 25-years-to-life sentence. During the first 10 years of the law, 56 percent of the state’s three-strikers had been convicted on such charges. You do the math. More people in prison for longer sentences? That’s a recipe for overcrowding.

I like Lack. I hope he gets the care he needs. I don’t care he lied to the banks. But if it weren’t for Three Strikes, he would have no need for Prop. 57 in the first place.


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