March 25, 2011

The San Bernardino County legal community finds itself embroiled in contretemps, with a report spreading that district attorney Mike Ramos, or agents of his office acting on his behalf, threatened a Superior Court judge.

Though the account has not been confirmed by any of the principals said to be involved, an individual of considerable standing and substance at the courthouse has told the Sentinel that just prior to Judge Frank Gafkowski’s ruling on a matter believed to be of major import to Ramos’ professional standing and political future, the district attorney dispatched a senior member of his office to confront Gafkowski and present him with an ultimatum regarding that pending ruling. That ultimatum contained a warning that if Gafkowski made a finding contrary to Ramos’ interests, efforts would be undertaken to ensure that Gafkowski would lose his current judicial assignment.

Gafkowski, a retired jurist, sits as a judge on the San Bernardino Court by assignment. While he was neither elected to the post he holds nor appointed to it by the governor as is the case with most judges, he was selected by the chief justice of the California Supreme Court to assist the San Bernardino Superior Court in handling its civil case overload. Gafkowski hears civil cases almost exclusively in that assignment.

Among the cases he is hearing is one brought by Cheryl Ristow, a former evidence technician in the district attorney’s office. In August 2010, Ristow, through her attorney Jim Reiss, filed a lawsuit alleging she had an 18-month affair with Ramos that included sexual relations that took place in Lake Arrowhead during a city-county conference they attended on behalf of the district attorney’s office, in Ramos’ office at the district attorney’s headquarters, as well as in Ramos’ county-issued car. Ristow’s suit further claims that after she ended the affair, Ramos sexually assaulted her at her workplace when he “grabbed and fondled” her against her will. When news of the affair came out, she alleged that Ramos and some of his employees retaliated against her.

Ramos and his attorney, Richard Marca, have denied the allegations contained in the suit. The district attorney’s office and the county have maintained that Ristow was properly reprimanded for office dress code and attendance violations. Ramos has personally denied having had an affair or improper relations with Ristow.

In the months both before and after the filing of the suit, Reiss was gathering information and evidence to support the assertions in the suit. Earlier this year he drafted an amended complaint in answer to the legal arguments and motions filed by Marca that there is insufficient grounds upon which to proceed with the suit.

As late as March 2 Gafkowski had given indication he would allow the case to proceed toward trial, issuing a tentative ruling giving Reiss 20 days to file a second amended complaint and proceed with discovery for the case. That discovery would have included taking the depositions of, i.e. questioning under oath, those involved, including Ristow and Ramos, as well as witnesses, such as other office employees, some of whom Ramos is alleged to have also been sexually involved with.

On March 3, however, Gafkowski abruptly changed course, and dismissed Ristow’s suit.

Gafkowski’s ruling that the sexual harassment lawsuit against the district attorney lacked sufficient evidence to back Ristow’s claims stunned knowledgeable legal authorities, in that there were factual issues that yet needed to be explored to ascertain whether Ristow’s case was in fact viable, and the judge’s ruling precluded the fact-finding necessary to make that determination.

According to a current member of the district attorney’s office, however, Gafkowski’s paradoxical legal ruling can be explicated by an event that took place just prior to his dismissal of the suit.

Speaking with a strict understanding of anonymity, the prosecutor said a high ranking member of the office, by inference assistant district attorney Jim Hackleman, buttonholed Gafkowski. Ramos’ emissary informed the judge that unless the case pending against Ramos was disposed of expeditiously, the district attorney’s office would approach San Bernardino County Superior Court Presiding Judge Douglas Elwell to tell him Gafkowski’s continued assignment was unacceptable to the prosecutor’s office.

A member of the court staff, also speaking with a guarantee of anonymity, told the Sentinel that Gafkowski had a discussion regarding the case without Ristow’s legal team being present.

Court records also show Gafkowski holding discussions regarding Ristow’s case with Ramos’ lawyer without Ristow or her legal team being present in the courtroom.

Gafkowski’s courtroom is located in the San Bernardino Superior Court’s Civil Division at 303 W. Third Street in San Bernardino. Ramos has his office two floors above Gafkowski’s courtroom in the same building.

A phone call to Gafkowski was intercepted by his courtroom clerk. She said all inquiries to the judge had to be routed through the court’s executive office. The Sentinel posted an email to Gafkowski, seeking his version of events, through a secretary with the court’s executive office, Michelle Stallone. At press time, Gafkowski had not responded to that email.

A request for comment from Ramos and Hackleman was relayed to them through their secretary, Kathy Dolan. Neither responded.

Susan Mickey, the district attorney’s office’s public information officer, told the Sentinel, “I’m sorry, but I don’t have any response to that. I don’t know what this is about. You might want to contact Mr. Ramos’ attorney, Richard Marca.”

Marca told the Sentinel, “This is an absolutely ridiculous accusation – that a judge of Judge Gafkowski’s integrity who has an absolutely sterling reputation would even entertain such a conversation or that someone from the district attorney’s office would engage in it.”

Any change of attitude Gafkowski evinced toward the case, Marca said, was based on the inherent weaknesses of the plaintiff’s position. “He ruled one way and after oral arguments he ruled in a different way because her [Ristow’s] attorney had an obligation to show facts supporting why this case should go to trial. There were no facts at the beginning, in the middle or on the last day we were there to flat warrant this case to continue on, unless they made them up. They were supposed to present to the court a viable case that warrants further litigation. Theirs did not warrant further litigation.”

Marca said the report of Gafkowski being threatened by someone working on behalf of his client was “an absurd fabrication, which is just a continuation of the fabrications which have been involved in this case.” He said, “As the lead lawyer in this case, I had every confidence the case would have no other outcome than the result that occurred no matter how long this case lasted. Who would resort to attacking the integrity of the judiciary? It is unfortunate that someone would make these kinds of accusations about a sitting judge, a man of solid integrity like Judge Gafkowski, and not care about their accusations and what they do to someone’s reputation.”

Marca said he was “not monitoring the activity of everyone in the district attorney’s office.” He said “I am not aware of any such information” regarding a meeting between Hackelman or anyone else from the district attorney’s office and Gafkowski. He reiterated his belief that such a meeting “just didn’t happen. It doesn’t make sense.”

Reiss told the Sentinel he considered Gafkowski’s ruling to dismiss the case “highly unusual. Just the day before, he had issued a tentative ruling to let us submit a second amended complaint. He just flipped over on us. He had no basis to dismiss the case under the law. The whole process exists so that plaintiffs and defendants get their day in court.”

Reiss said unresolved issues yet exist.

“He [Ramos] says there was no relationship, consensual or otherwise, and there was no retaliation when the relationship went sour,” he said. “We say there was. It’s a he said, she said kind of thing. That’s why there needs to be evidence considered and witnesses heard.”

Reiss said the report going around that Ramos had sent someone over to threaten Gafkowski was “pretty shocking. That’s basically extortion.”

Reiss said, though, that since Gafkowski’s cases are primarily or exclusively civil ones and the district attorney’s office engages in criminal filings, any complaint the district attorney’s office might make about Gafkowski’s acceptability would not, or at least should not, carry much weight with Elwell.

“The district attorney’s office doesn’t have much leverage over him as a judge hearing civil cases, I would think,” Reiss said.

Ramos, however, has cultivated his relationship with the county’s judges and the succession of presiding judges who have served in that capacity while he has been district attorney. In 2009, for example, Ramos supported the continuation of San Bernardino County’s practice of augmenting the county judges’ state paid incomes with an additional $20,000 stipend. Critics of the stipend, including county supervisor Neil Derry, said the payment was adverse to the state constitution and a represented a conflict of interest for judges, who often hear cases in which the county is either a plaintiff or a defendant. Ramos asserted that it was neither unconstitutional nor a conflict, and the county has continued the practice.