Prosecutorial Misconduct in El Dorado County - Part 1
Here in El Dorado County, District Attorney Vern Pierson, Controller-Auditor Joe Harn and the Placerville Mountain Democrat newspaper are at the heart of some ugly politics in our lovely county.
The voters will have a chance to change that in the election coming up on Tuesday. In addition to Pierson and Harn, several other county positions are on the ballot including treasurer-tax collector, assessor and county clerk.
In an editorial earlier this month, The Sacramento Bee called the legal case against El Dorado County District 2 Supervisor Ray Nutting a “political prosecution.” That is exactly what it was.
Nutting was arrested last year and charged with multiple felonies for failing to report federal grant money for clearing brush on his property, as well as conflict of interest charges for votes he cast regarding the grant
programs. After Nutting’s arrest, Pierson charged him with several misdemeanor counts for soliciting and receiving bail money from county employees and a county contractor.
On May 14, Nutting was found innocent on three of the four felonies, but was convicted of six misdemeanor counts regarding the loans for bail money. The jury hung on the fourth felony. The convictions all stemmed from the fact that Pierson had Nutting arrested for something he did not do.
Pierson’s case against political consultant Dan Dellinger was even weaker.
In July 2012, Dellinger was charged with unlawfully using taxpayer money to directly advocate passage of a parcel tax for the Pioneer Fire Protection District in south El Dorado County. The tax, called “Measure F,” passed in November 2011 with nearly 80 percent of the vote.
Government agencies, such as fire districts and city councils, are legally forbidden to use taxpayer money to directly advocate for or against a ballot measure or candidate. Agencies are, however, permitted to spend money on informational campaigns – to inform the voters about the dire financial straits of their fire department, for example.
At his trial last week, that is exactly what Dellinger said he did. The jurors agreed, taking only 47 minutes to unanimously find Dellinger innocent of all charges.
There is an interesting similarity to both of these failed prosecutions: Each was instigated by Joe Harn, the county controller-auditor.
In both cases, Harn brought his bogus concerns to the District Attorney’s office, which then initiated grand jury investigations. It is an old cliché, but again proven here: A district attorney can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich.
We may never know the reasons behind these political prosecutions. But Dellinger and others in the county suggest this: Dellinger was the hired political consultant for both Nutting and Sheriff John D'Agostini, who is Nutting’s good friend. D’Agostini beat a candidate Pierson and Harn backed, Craig Therkildsen, and they just can’t let it go.
These political prosecutions are an abuse of government authority and a misuse of the legal system for political goals.
Next, the Mountain Democrat newspaper: In the May 21 editorial titled “Poor choice,” the paper criticizes The Sacramento Bee for its editorial on the Nutting trial and, in so doing, practically accuses the jurors of breaking the law. The editors wrote: “Of course [the jurors] are instructed not to read anything about the case. Realistically, though, it is likely that jurors would have read newspapers on Friday.”
For the jurors to disobey the judge’s order not to read a newspaper story would have been a violation of the law and of their sworn oath. The Mountain Democrat and its editor Mike Raffety owe the jurors an apology.
The paper also endorsed Raffety’s wife, C.L. (Cherie) Raffety, for reelection to the well-compensated position of county tax collector - failing to mention the fact that she is married to the paper’s editor. Well, surprise, surprise!
In El Dorado County, this pernicious mix of politics, law enforcement and entrenched county officials is a costly embarrassment to the residents of El Dorado County. The price to taxpayers for Pierson’s multiple political prosecutions is unknown, but can be reasonably estimated at over $1 million.
The fact that our local newspaper does not even make the pretense of accuracy or fairness only makes the problem worse.
El Dorado County needs changes at the top. Big changes.
Ripley M Howe is a retired journalist and manager who lives in Placerville