Thursday, April 5, 2012

Stanislaus County: City officials’ trials approach tipping points

by Nick Rappley | Patterson Irrigator
Two upcoming trials stemming from a Stanislaus County Civil Grand Jury report that lambasted several city officials last year have reached turning points.

A ruling is expected Tuesday, April 10, in civil contempt-of-court proceedings against former City Attorney George Logan in Stanislaus Superior Court Civil Division. The following week, arguments will commence April 17 in U.S. District Court in Sacramento regarding a motion to dismiss a federal case that Councilwoman Annette Smith has filed against Stanislaus County.

If Logan lost the contempt of court ruling, he could face a $1,000 fine and more than $10,000 in court costs. A judge already ruled March 12 that there would be no change of venue because of court prejudice against Logan, as his alleged contempt of court took place within the Stanislaus County court system. Logan previously shared information about his court testimony to the press after he changed the wording of a document that commanded him not to share details about grand jury proceedings, and then signed it. At the same time, Logan won a motion to have the court records in the case unsealed.

If Smith lost her motion April 17, her case would be over. Smith, whose attorney costs paid by the city have reached more than $27,000, filed a motion Monday, April 2, in opposition to the county’s motion to dismiss.

Costs to defend council members Smith and Dominic Farinha against civil grand jury claims have exceeded $67,000.

Smith’s motion countered the county’s claims in its most recent dismissal motion.

“While grand jury members are often exempt from liability, where they act as they have here, by intentionally circulating a defamatory report, liability may be found,” wrote Smith’s attorney, Michael Babitzke, in court papers. “In particular, the actions of the grand jury in the aggregate delimit and intrude on (Smith’s) first amendment rights to perform her duties as city council person for the City of Patterson in the manner she believes is proper.”

The county filed the dismissal motion March 16, claiming that Smith’s responses were not timely in court and that grand juries are arms of the court and not part of county government.

Smith’s original complaint, filed in October in federal court, was dismissed Jan. 26 because it was too vague, according to U.S. District Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill.

Her amended complaint, filed in February, labeled grand jury members as county employees.

“Grand jury members are as a matter of law considered to be employees of the County of Stanislaus and were so employed at all relevant times,” stated Smith’s court documents. “Grand jury members are compensated on a daily basis by the County of Stanislaus, receive parking permits, office keys, access to a copy machine, access to email and access to a grand jury library to compensate them for services provided.”

The grand jury’s report released in late June stated that Smith participated in a vote regarding developer John Ramos’ legal fees while she had a financial relationship with him and also stated that Ramos had written off expenses for Smith in the past. It also criticized Smith for allegedly confronting a resident in a supermarket parking lot and using abusive language. The report stated further that she pressured city staff to fire former City Manager Cleve Morris and former Community Development Director Rod Simpson.

The report called for Smith’s ouster, by either citizen recall or her resignation. The grand jury also recommended that former Mayor Becky Campo pay back money she received as mayor because she allegedly lived outside city limits.

It further stated that the city should file a complaint with the California State Bar to chastise Logan for alleged improprieties, such as failing to be in the room when the council voted to reimburse Ramos for $27,000 in legal fees. The grand jury advised that Ramos return that money to the city and admonished Councilman Dominic Farinha for open-meeting violations.

• Nick Rappley can be reached at 892-6187, ext. 31, or

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