Thursday, December 22, 2011

Library case verdicts show the value of grand juries

Editorial: Library case verdicts show the value of grand juries

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011

California's civil grand juries aren't perfect; they sometimes go overboard in their zeal to uncover wrongdoing in local government.

But the kickback scandal at Sacramento County's library is a good reminder of the valuable watchdog role the citizen grand juries can play.

A Superior Court criminal jury on Monday convicted the library's former security chief and his wife for bilking taxpayers of $780,000 in a maintenance over-billing scheme that also involved the library's former facilities director, who was convicted earlier this month. All three are to be sentenced Jan. 20 and face years in prison in what the prosecutor called "a classic case of public corruption."

It's a case, however, that might not have seen the light of day – except for a whistle-blower who came forward, a series of stories in The Bee and investigations by the Sacramento County grand jury and the District Attorney's Office.

The library director at the time, Anne Marie Gold, brushed off the accusations. So the whistle-blower sought out the grand jury. It pushed the case and issued a blistering report in 2008 that helped force Gold's resignation.

"You swear people in and all of a sudden, a lot of the truth comes out," grand jury foreman Don Prange told The Bee's Andy Furillo. "I'm very pleased."

This case also should be a caution to those who want to overhaul how grand juries operate.

Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, a former Sacramento County supervisor and defender of Gold, pushed a sweeping measure last session in the name of transparency. But after supporters of grand juries responded, Assembly Bill 622 was wisely stripped down.

What the Legislature eventually passed and Gov. Jerry Brown signed allows any witness testifying under oath to a grand jury to have his or her lawyer present, though it restricts attorneys from objecting to questions or disclosing anything that they hear during the proceedings.

Grand juries will have to see how the law works. While it's an additional safeguard for witnesses, it would be a shame if it interfered with the important job that grand juries do.

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