Monday, March 15, 2010

SB County could get additional grand juries

The Press-Enterprise

San Bernardino County could have up to three civil grand juries impaneled under state legislation being considered that one supervisor says could serve as a meaningful reform.

The bill, introduced last month by Assemblyman Paul Cook, R-Yucca Valley at the request of the county, would allow two more panels with the ability to investigate local government.

It would be up to the presiding judge of the San Bernardino County Superior Court to decide whether additional juries are needed and how long its members would serve. Similar legislation has been approved in Los Angeles County.

Under existing law, San Bernardino County has one grand jury made up of 19 members with one-year terms tasked with preparing an annual report on local government.

Separately, prosecutors can impanel special criminal grand juries to seek indictments.

The proposal is the latest reform suggested in the wake of a corruption scandal that has led to the arrest of five former county officials and raised allegations of bribery and conspiracy.

Last July, Supervisor Neil Derry introduced a proposal for an ethics commission in which an independent panel would be empowered to investigate elected officials and fine them for campaign finance violations. But the proposal has stalled since a September workshop where other supervisors expressed ambivalence about the idea.

Last month, District Attorney Mike Ramos proposed campaign-contribution limits, regulating political action committees and prohibiting supervisors from interfering in staff decisions. He said the recommendations were based on observations made during his office's three-year investigation of corruption.

Supervisor Paul Biane said creating additional grand juries could be an effective and inexpensive solution. He said it would spread the workload and allow juries additional time to investigate matters, addressing two common complaints raised by past grand juries.

"I look at the grand jury model, if expanded upon, is maybe what San Bernardino County needs instead of spending a couple million dollars a year on an ethics commission," Biane said.

He added that all the reform proposals deserve equal consideration and are not necessarily competitive.

Derry said adding more grand juries is no replacement for an ethics commission. Grand juries cannot issue fines, offer ethics advice or provide the continual oversight an ethics commission would, he said.

"It still operates under the courts and has limited scope," he said.

Charles Umeda, deputy district attorney and legal adviser to the grand jury, said while the grand jury has a greater workload and more complex cases in recent years it's still able to handle the investigations.

However, due to budget constraints grand jurors, who are paid a nominal stipend, only work three days a week, he said.

"I think the current grand jury could do more work if given more resources," Umeda said.

Bob Stern, president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, said additional grand jury panels could be helpful. But for meaningful reform to occur, he said it's not enough.

Grand juries can only issue advisory reports with cities and counties free to ignore their recommendations, Stern said. He noted that last year's grand jury suggested that supervisors form an ethics commission and enact campaign contribution limits.

The grand jury bill will be considered by the Assembly Public Safety Committee later this month and could be considered by the full Legislature by August, said John Sobel, legislative director for Cook.

Reach Imran Ghori at 951-368-9558 or

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