07:36 PM PST on Monday, November 30, 2009

By GAIL WESSON
The Press-Enterprise

District attorney’s officials argued in recent months against publicly releasing search warrants in the San Jacinto political corruption case, saying the warrants needed to remain sealed to protect the investigation in one of the largest such cases in Riverside County history, according to court transcripts released Monday.

“We’ve already got indications that the people that we’ve interviewed have already been coached and spoken to by some of our suspects in the case,” said Kim Robinson, a district attorney’s investigator, to Riverside County Superior Court Judge Helios Hernandez, according to transcripts of an Aug. 19 closed-door meeting.

At the same meeting, Elaina Bentley, chief deputy district attorney with the special prosecutions unit, expressed concern that investigators might lose “documentary evidence that could be destroyed if the individuals knew they were going to be targeted for potential investigation.”

The Press-Enterprise sought release last summer of five search warrants issued in April. They covered the office and home of San Jacinto Councilman Jim Ayres and the homes of two businessmen, all indicted earlier this month in the case, and the home of a bookkeeping business owner who was interviewed in the case, according to court records.

Hernandez, who had signed the orders sealing the warrants, turned down the newspaper’s request to unseal them after two hearings in August. At a third hearing Oct. 6, the judge ordered them to be released Oct. 30. The 4th District Court of Appeal put a temporary hold on the release at the district attorney’s request.

District Attorney Rod Pacheco on Nov. 12 announced indictments against four San Jacinto council members, one San Jacinto school board member and four businessmen. The next day, Judge W. Charles Morgan ordered the unsealing of 32 search warrants in the case, issued as far back as June 2008.

The newspaper returned to court seeking the release of transcripts of the private meetings between the judge and district attorney’s officials.

In court Monday, Robyn Aronson, attorney for the newspaper, said the public has a right of access to the transcripts of those meetings, and agreed names of confidential informants should remain sealed.

Deputy District Attorney Ivy Fitzpatrick told the judge there were other reasons to keep some information in the transcripts confidential, but did not elaborate.

When released Monday, blacked-out portions of the transcripts added up to about one page of the 20 pages of transcripts.

Early in the case, investigators sought bank, property and real estate transaction records for various individuals and properties. They also sought work e-mail records for then-Mayor Jim Ayres, according to court records. By April 2009, the search of homes and offices began.

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