Sunday, October 16, 2011

Patterson councilwoman takes aim at grand jury

Wednesday, Sep. 28, 2011

Leader says lawsuit a means for overhauling the system
By Patty Guerra

Patterson City Councilwoman Annette Smith has sued Stanislaus County over a harsh civil grand jury report issued earlier this year. The highly unusual move is aimed, she said, at an overhaul of the local grand jury system.

"It was the most demeaning experience of my life," she said of her testimony in November before the grand jury. She said grand jurors made it clear they were targeting her. "They were insulting, they were biased, they were predetermined."

She filed the lawsuit Tuesday in federal court in Sacramento.
Annette Smith has sued Stanislaus County over a harsh civil grand jury report issued earlier this year. The highly unusual move is aimed, she said, at an overhaul of the local grand jury system.

Patterson grand jury complaint

In the report issued in June, grand jurors recommended that Smith should lose her seat for failing to disclose a financial relationship with a developer and voting to give him $27,000 without justification, among other alleged offenses. The report also said then-Mayor Becky Campo moved out of town during her term and Campo, Smith and Councilman Dominic Farinha illegally ousted then-City Manager Cleve Morris.

The city responded last week with a blistering letter to Presiding Judge Ricardo Córdova.

In the response, written by interim City Attorney Thomas Hallinan, the city flatly rejected most of the grand jury's findings. The call for Smith to resign or face a potential recall election, the response says, "is the most outrageous and inappropriate recommendation our city attorney has seen in 17 years of reviewing grand jury reports. To engage in political advocacy is completely and utterly contrary to the charge of the grand jury."

Córdova said he could not comment on pending litigation. Stanislaus County Superior Court Executive Officer Mike Tozzi said the lawsuit is a first in his 27 years with the courts.

"It's very unusual," agreed Mi-chael Vitiello, a law professor at the University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law. Grand jurors themselves are offered partial immunity from litigation.

"There are lots of criticisms of civil grand juries," he said. "But these are a bunch of citizens trying to do good. … It should not be too easy to sue them."

Question of oversight

Smith's lawsuit, he said, "sounds like a heavy-handed approach."

Vitiello said the county can respond to the claim, and then a federal judge will decide if the case has merit.

"As a local matter, you have a real risk there," he said. "What you don't want to have happen is for the grand jury to be intimidated."

Smith said the grand jury needs more oversight to make sure members are abiding by the rules.

"Nobody was watching this group," she said. "Not the county counsel, that I could see. Certainly not the presiding judge."

But that's not Córdova's role, Tozzi said. He doesn't get involved until the grand jury issues its report. He reads it and can comment on it or suggest changes if he finds omissions.

"They might make an accusation about something, and there's nothing substantiated," Tozzi said. "The presiding judge might say, 'You didn't have any findings. You might want to soften your wording.'

"But he is not a part of the investigation. And that's important, since the grand jury is considered an independent body, and the county is among the entities it could investigate."

Stanislaus County Counsel John Doering said Wednesday he hadn't seen a copy of the lawsuit. Once the county is served, he said his office will determine how to proceed.

Although he doesn't recall any local lawsuits over a grand jury report, "It's not too terribly surprising. There was a lot of animosity about that report."

Denis France, foreman of the grand jury for the past two years, also said he hadn't seen the claim.

Smith is seeking "injunctive relief prohibiting any further abuses of authority," as well as publication of testimony transcripts and a revised report. She also is suing for unspecified damages.

"Legally, I'm entitled to respond," she said. "Most people write them a letter and say, 'Oh, you're wrong.' I'm unique. This is my response. This is broken, and I would like to see it fixed."

Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at or (209) 578-2343.

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