Friday, April 30, 2010

There's no show without the popcorn!
The cast of characters in Santana, Vasquez

The bench, the tables, the witness box and the public gallery is packed with attorneys keeping a keen eye on the court proceedings in the matter of People v. Santana and Vasquez.

To help readers grasp the sheer number of attorneys directly concerned by this crucial case, Notable Trials has compiled a cast list of the main characters in this courtroom drama, with a few details added.

The list is not complete. It is expected to lengthen as the names of other attorneys and parties of interest emerge in this mammoth case.

Clicking on their names will take you to the basic career information on each person as provided by the State Bar of California.

The Judge:
John Henry Darlington
Darlington is a former Nevada County District attorney, and retired Nevada County Superior Court judge, now retired and presiding pro tem in various county cases.

The Prosecutors:
Michael Andre Canzoneri
Canzoneri is a supervising deputy attorney general with the California Department of Justice

David Andrew Lowe
Lowe is a deputy attorney general with the California Department of Justice.

The Accused:
Jesse Isaias Santana
Santana is a named partner in the Yuba City law firm of Beauchamp and Santana.

David William Vasquez
Vasquez is a named partner in the Marysville law firm of Vasquez and Vasquez.

The Defenders:
Craig Allan Leri
Leri practices law with offices in Marysville. He represents Jesse Santana.

Michael Robert Barrette
Barrette practices law with offices in Yuba City. He represents David Vasquez.

The Witnesses(so far):
Melanie Kamber Bendorf
Bendorf is a prosecutor with the Yuba County District Attorney’s Office. She and John Vacek pressed the original charges against Santana and Vasquez.

John Riley Vacek
Vacek is a prosecutor with the Yuba County District Attorney’s Office. He and Bendorf pressed the original charges against Santana and Vasquez.

Timothy John Evans
Evans is a former Sutter County Superior Court judge now in private practice with offices in Marysville. He briefly represented Joseph Griesa, during negotiations with "SA" to settle her sex harassment lawsuit.

Charles John (a.k.a., "Chuck") Smith
Smith is an attorney with the Redwood City law firm of Hartnett Smith & Associates. He briefly represented Joseph Griesa, who was convicted of some sex-related charges involving "SA." Other charges remain pending against Griesa.

Kenneth Lloyd Rosenfeld
Rosenfeld is the Sacramento attorney currently representing Joseph Griesa. Technically, Rosenfeld is not himself a witness. Rather, he stands beside Griesa when he is on the witness stand and directs whether Griesa should answer a defense question, or invoke his Fifth Amendment constitutional right against self-incrimination, instead.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Yuba County's Santana, Vasquez case echoes
Hollywood's more famous People v. Polanski

One seldom gets to compare Yuba-Sutter, two smallish counties in Northern California, and Hollywood, but we can do so in the matters of People v. Santana, Vasquez and People v. Roman Polanski.

First filed in Yuba County Superior Court in 2008, the felony case alleges attorneys Jesse Santana and David Vasquez unethically worked out a deal that Joseph Griesa would pay $100,000 to settle out of court a minor girl’s claim that Griesa had sexually harassed her.

The Polanski case was first filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in 1977. In it, the filmmaker was accused of having illegal sexual intercourse with a minor girl at a Hollywood movie star party.

As part of a plea deal with the prosecution, Polanski spent three months in custody for three months of "diagnostic evaluation," but then fled Los Angeles for Europe upon learning that the state court judge was expected to renege on their plea agreement.

That alleged judicial double-cross became the focus of Polanski’s continuing legal battle.

Santana and Vasquez continued their active law practices while vigorously fighting the charges against them in a case that has bounced back and forth in court for some two years now.

While case files mount volume upon volume, arguments have yet to move beyond the pre-trial hearing stage. .

For his part, Polanski – who is now in custody in Switzerland -- continued to make award-winning films while he fought the charges which languished in legal limbo until a recent Second District Court of appeals court denied his request to be sentenced in absentia.

That court also refused both to authorize a special counsel to review the ancient and "unseal secret testimony by its former prosecutor, apparently detailing judicial and prosecutorial misconduct."

The court also dismissed a request by the 13-year-old victim in the original Polanski case – now a grown woman named Samantha Geimer – to have the case dismissed.

In a March 23 filing, Geimer’s lawyer, Lawrence Silver, called the continued prosecution of Polanski of being "stale of fact and devoid of current purpose except to advance a political career. Justice is not made of such stuff."

The diagnostic study of Polanski recommended probation. But Laurence Ritterand, the judge in the case, allegedly bowed to pressure from the media and the LA DA’s office, threatened to renege on the plea bargain agreement and sentence Polanski to a much longer term in jail. Faced with that prospect Polanski high-tailed it for Europe.

Polanski’s original defense lawyer and the original prosecuting deputy district attorney both made statements at the time accusing Rittenband of misconduct.

Law commentators have since asserted that the political nature to the various court rulings in the Polanski matter have all but acknowledged the illegality of Rittenband’s actions.

The politics surrounding the Santana, Vasquez case provoke similar doubts and question.

A reputed liberal and demonstrably defense-oriented attorney, Santana was considered a front-runner for a gubernatorial appointment to a vacant Sutter County judgeship when the charges were filed.

The charges were filed in such a way that the accusing prosecutors could avoid a public preliminary hearing in which the Santana and Vasquez could question the source and motives of the allegations.

For some, the timing of the charges was optimum. It stalled matters just long enough for the governor to appoint another judgeship candidate to the Sutter County bench, one more to the liking of local conservatives.

This courtroom drama could have played out differently. Santana and Vasquez might have simply taken note of the Sutter County judicial appointment, chalked it all up to experience and local political conniving and let it all disappear into the mists of the prosecutor’s lower drawer where certain unfiled cases sometimes go.

But two hard-earned reputations for meritorious ethical conduct were on the line. Santana and Vasquez fought back.

While Polanski’s drama has been playing in re-runs and sequels for some 33 years, the Santana, Vasquez mini-series has only been on the air for a mere two years. Still, that’s a long, long time when one is living under a shadow and shelling out legal costs and fees.

But now it is going to trial – or will soon, if all the pre-trial maneuverings ever end.

All Yuba County judges have either been otherwise tied up or have declined to hear the case, being so familiar with the parties on both sides in question. Retired Nevada County Judge John Darlington has parachuted in to oversee the matter.

For appearances sake if for no other reason, two out-of-town prosecutors from the state Attorney General’s Office were imported to try the case. They are deputy attorney generals Michael Canzoneri and David Lowe.

Santana and Vasquez have engaged other attorneys to represent them in the case – recalling, perhaps, the old adage that only a fool has himself for a lawyer. Craig Leri represents Santana. Michael Barrette represents Vasquez.

Now, all the politics and personalities involved may finally emerge into the harsh public light.

Evidentiary hearings in People v. Santana, Vasquez, YCSC #08-825, are expected to resume 2:30 p.m. April 30, in superior court department #7.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Criminal trial delayed for beleaguered Leary

The May 4 criminal trial of former Elk Grove City Council member Michael Leary has been postponed until at least June 29 bby a Sacramento County Superior Court judge.

The postponement came after a hallway conference between Leary’s criminal defense lawyer William Portanova and prosecutor Michael Blazina.

Leary faces four criminal charges of real estate fraud for allegedly filing altered documents and attempting to defraud his former girlfriend Alyc Maselli out of her portion of a property they reportedly owned jointly.

Subsequent to his criminal indictment, Leary was terminated from the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.

While conferring with Portanova in the hallway outside the courtroom of Judge Gary E. Ransom, Leary seemed to be frustrated with the process.

“I want this thing over and done,” Leary told his defense team.

Once back in the courtroom, Ransom scheduled further proceedings for May 10 , a pre-trial conference for June 8 and a trial start date of June 29.

After the hearing, Blazina said the continuance was needed to allow for further discovery issues for both parties.

“I think I have something that the court should have; there is some issue with my ability to provide it,” Blazina said. “So we have to get some guidance from the court on how to go about doing that that,”

When asked if the extra time was needed for new witnesses or evidence, Blazina said he couldn’t comment.

Dan Gougherty
Elk Grove News

Monday, April 26, 2010

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

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 state 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.