Witnesses finally testify in Santana, Vasquez; and the parts not left out might even be true

By Thomas Nadeau Special to EGN From Notable Trials One attorney’s “financial settlement” is the next lawyer’s “cash bribe.” If you do...

By Thomas Nadeau
Special to EGN From Notable Trials

One attorney’s “financial settlement” is the next lawyer’s “cash bribe.” If you don’t believe it, consider how the field of choices for a judicial appointment can sometimes be narrowed.

To see firsthand the shadow politics and insider conniving that goes into defining the difference, be in Yuba County Superior Court 2:30 p.m. April 30.

There you can watch a parade of lawyers and witnesses weave and dodge before visiting Judge John Darlington over the legal ethics and political motives raised by People v. Santana and Vasquez, CRF-#08-825.

A pre-trial evidentiary hearing Thursday left spectators still wondering if this case will ever reach trial, much less a final verdict. The hearing resumes on that April date.

Joseph Griesa – the former towing company operator whose alleged sexual harassment and payment of shut-up money forms the basis for this case – is expected to testify that day, attorneys said.

Greatly simplified, this convoluted case maps out like this.
Griesa’s firm, Mitchell’s Towing Service, had long maintained profitable contracts with local law enforcement agencies including the Marysville Police Department for towing impounded vehicles.

Griesa himself was accused of hiring under-aged girls to work as dispatchers, not properly reporting their pay and sexually harassing at least one of the minors, referred to in court documents as “SA”.

Griesa denied the allegations, but a Yuba County jury convicted him last year of some misdemeanor charges brought against him. A few related charges remain unresolved and Griesa is expected to face further proceedings.

People v. Santana and Vasquez burst into the news in mid-2008 when reports surfaced that the Yuba County district attorney had accused Santana (counsel for SA) and Vasquez (counsel for Griesa) of cutting a deal in which the girl’s threatened lawsuit would “go away” in exchange for $100,000.

Griesa reportedly made a $50,000 down payment on the deal, but that money apparently was never accessed before the DA filed felony criminal charges.

Exactly how those charges were brought is a significant issue in this mystery-laden case. They did not originate directly from the DA in the typical manner. The defendants were instead indicted by the county grand jury, which is an extremely rare occurrence.

Deputy county district attorneys testifying Thursday – Melanie Bendorf and John Vacek – blamed this divergence from the usual procedures on looming court filing deadlines.

In another twist in the tale, the grand jury met not once, but twice to decide how to bring the charges. They met once to quiz Griesa about SA’s allegations, then again separately to take the testimony from Griesa needed to consider charging Santana and Vasquez.

This odd bifurcation of proceedings was a key focal point when the attorney for Santana, Craig Leri, and the attorney for Vasquez, Michael Barrette questioned Bendorf and Vacek Thursday

Their courtroom interrogatories revolved around suspicions that the grand jury meetings were split to give prosecutors plausible deniability to counter reasonable suspicions that Griesa may have been promised leniency in his own criminal trials in exchange his providing them with damning testimony against Santana and Vasquez in the other case.

Bendorf and Vacek both denied Thursday any such deal existed, Vacek most emphatically. Their denials are supported by the fact that Griesa was eventually tried.

However, doubts still linger, if only because of the way the charges against the lawyers were first leveled and then maneuvered through the courts by local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors.

To begin with Santana – a noted defense attorney and supporter of minority and liberal causes – was being evaluated for possible appointment to a judgeship on the Sutter County Superior Court bench. Many court watchers pegged him as the most likely choice.

But the publicity surrounding the out-of-the-blue indictment more or less killed any chance Santana would get the judgeship. A Sutter County prosecutor backed by local conservative forces – was named to the post instead.

(Note: In California, superior court judges are theoretically selected by voters. Over the years, however, politicians and lobbyists have manipulated system procedures to effectively remove the power to pick judges from the voters and give it to the governor. This is an important issue and Notable Trials will expandlater on how this works.)

The timing, the politics and the personalities involved here immediately raised hackles and sent antennae shooting up all across the local legal community. Somehow, negotiating an out-of-court civil settlement, an everyday event in the course of business between two disputing parties, had been – Abracadabra! – transmogrified into a felony violation that, if prosecuted and convicted, could deprive an attorney of their license to practice law.

But back to the Thursday hearing.

Vacek is an experienced prosecutor, but his stripes and medals were mainly gained operating in other states with quite different criminal procedures.

He had arrived in Yuba County DA’s Office only a few months before being assigned this high profile case in which two much-experienced and well-regarded attorneys were named. Being the new kid on the block Vacek would also likely be unfamiliar with any political undercurrents that might at work

Cynical observers might conclude that a few insiders who would rather not see a liberal appointed to the Sutter County bench had found someone to carry their water while they remained safely removed from the controversy that was sure to follow.

Others, on the other hand, might equally conclude that justice was merely taking its course.

From Bendorf’s and Vacek’s testimony Thursday, it appeared that meetings involving two prosecutors and their boss, DA Pat McGrath, on the matter of People v. Santana, Vasquez were often held in such a way that all were not present all of of the time.

Hence, when defense attorneys pressed the witnesses on certain key issues and events, such phrases as, “I wasn’t there at that time” kept cropping up. This was particularly so in Bendorf’s answers.

Other times, prosecutors Michael A. Canzoneri and David A. Lowe – both deputy attorney generals – would object to the question and Judge Darlington would rule whatever the witness might reply as “hearsay” and so the question would go unanswered.

(Note: Just as out-of-town judges can be brought in to hear cases in which all available local judges might be perceived to have conflicts of interest, so might the statae attorney general provide prosecutors when the local prosecutors might be perceived to have conflicts of interest. It is uncommon, but not unheard of.)

The long, nearly two-year gap between when the alleged legal misconduct supposedly took place and Thursday’s hearing finally took place also made Bendorf’s many “I can’t remembers” and “I’m not sures” arguably true, if not entirely plausible to skeptical observers, considering the likely notoriety the case was sure to gain.

And, speaking of observers and the high visibility of this rare legal matter, a nose count, showed how keenly the legal community and its observers are following this case.

Not including Judge Darlington, some 22 attorneys were present at one time or another, either in the pit, or out in the gallery.

Before the bar were the two lawyer defendants, their separate attorneys and the two prosecutors from the AG’s Office in Sacramento.

On the witness stand were the two local prosecutors who testified.

Observing from the gallery were an attorney for Griesa and an assortment of local attorneys with personal or professional interests in the case.

Also there were five paralegals/legal assistants and a couple of news reporters with an interest in the court beat.

Should this unusual case ever get to trial, the court may have to create a printed program listing all the players present, if only so the audience can keep the cast of characters straight.

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