Thursday, February 2, 2012

Judge Backs Stanislaus County in Patterson Grand Jury Lawsuit

Wednesday, Feb. 01, 2012

A federal judge sided with Stanislaus County in a lawsuit by a Patterson city councilwoman over its civil grand jury. But Annette Smith said she hasn't given up and will amend her claim that grand jurors acted on behalf of the county when publishing "negative and false statements" about her.

In his order, District Judge Lawrence O'Neill found that Smith failed to prove that any county employee or official did anything wrong.

"Grand Jury members are not employed by the county," O'Neill wrote. " … the alleged wrongful acts were performed by the Grand Jury and not municipal employees." O'Neill gave Smith 30 days to file an amended complaint with more information.

Smith is seeking an overhaul of the grand jury system, as well as unspecified monetary damages. She said it was clear the grand jury had targeted her when she was interviewed about actions the Patterson City Council had taken in 2010.

In its June report, the grand jury said 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 denied most of the accusations, with City Attorney Thomas Hallinan calling the report "the most outrageous and inappropriate recommendation" he had seen in 17 years.

Confidence in case
Smith's attorney in the civil case, Michael Babitzke, said he is confident she still can prevail. He said the grand jury is in the county's budget, makes use of its offices and facilities, and works with the county counsel's office.

"If that's what the court's concerned about, we can address those issues," he said.
Babitzke said the matter went beyond a public official complaining about criticism in a grand jury report. "Criticism is one thing," he said. "But republication of false and defamatory material is without the scope of a grand jury."

Smith said she wasn't surprised by the judge's ruling, and remains undaunted. "I'm not discouraged at all," she said. "I fully intend to refile." County Counsel John Doering is confident, as well. "We are pleased with the court's decision," he said. "We think it is correct and clearly demonstrates the lack of merit of the complaint filed by Miss Smith. … Grand jurors are not county employees. If anything, they're a function of a court."

Judge's closing note
Doering pointed to the final paragraph of O'Neill's order, in which the judge wrote: "This Court is beyond busy. Amend only if the facts to be alleged exist, and the law cited herein is followed."
"That's well said by the court," Doering said. "In a very subtle way, he's letting them know that, look, the law's the law and you need to plead facts."

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

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