San Bernardino County Grand Jury

By Mark Gutglueck
Saturday, January 30, 2016

County civil grand jurors who have taken up investigations deemed highly problematic for top elected officials, senior county staff members and department heads and the county itself have been forced to drop those lines of inquiry and threatened with prosecution if they persist in exploring those issues, the Sentinel is informed.

The subjects involved, the Sentinel has learned, pertain to the failure of the county’s child and family services division to stem the abuse of youths in the county’s foster care system, including incidents that resulted in the deaths of some children; sheriff’s department personnel acquiring title to vehicles impounded during department operations on a far larger scale than was previously reported by the immediate past civil grand jury; sheriff’s department supervisors imposing on deputies so-called ticket writing quotas as part of their patrol assignments; incidents in which county jail inmates were furnished or otherwise allowed access to intoxicants; and the use of sheriff’s department helicopters for purposes wholly unrelated to law enforcement, public safety and rescue operations to transport high ranking department members, department members’ wives and girlfriends, campaign donors, political figures or their associates to locales both inside and outside the county, in some cases for highly inappropriate purposes.

What is suggested by the reports is that District Attorney Mike Ramos has overstepped his legitimate authority as San Bernardino County’s top prosecutor to quash or have the deputy prosecutor overseeing the grand jury quash the investigations, either to protect from prosecution or save from embarrassment certain county officials or to limit the potential of county liability that might ensue if the degree to which certain county employees acted misappropriately, negligently or illegally were to be documented. It has been reported that in one case in particular, Ramos engaged in what might be construed as an effort to obstruct justice by meeting with top county officials in a “strategy session” aimed at devising a “cover story.”

At issue in the brewing scandal is whether top county officials have interfered with the legitimate independent investigative purview of the grand jury or whether grand jurors themselves violated the confidentiality of the grand jury’s proceedings.

All counties in California are required under the California Constitution as well as Title 4 and Title 5 of the California Penal Code along with Government Code 3060 to have at least one grand jury impaneled at all times.

Most standing grand juries in California, including San Bernardino County’s grand jury, are referred to as civil grand juries and have a session that is coterminous with the government fiscal year running from July 1 through June 30. These grand juries do not typically deal with criminal matters, per se, but are chartered to focus primarily on oversight of government institutions at the county level or lower, such as cities or water, fire, school and community services districts or any entity which receives public money. If in the course of such an investigation the grand jury comes upon indications or evidence of real or potential criminal activity, it is at liberty to gather that information and both pass it along to the appropriate law enforcement agency and document it in a report, in either ad hoc form in the annual grand jury report put out toward the end of its term in June.

Grand juries have the authority to charge public officials with “willful or corrupt misconduct in office.” Such accusations under the California Constitution and state law are to be tried in the same manner as a criminal indictment, and may not be dismissed for political or extra-legal motives. The definition of “willful misconduct in office” specifies serious misconduct that constitutes criminal behavior or “purposeful failure to carry out mandatory duties of office.”

In San Bernardino County, going back at least as far as district attorney Jerome Kavanaugh in the late 1930s and 1940s, the district attorney’s office has provided the civil grand jury with an advisor. That policy continued under all subsequent district attorneys – Lowell Lathrop, Jim Cramer, Dennis Kottmeier, Dennis Stout and Mike Ramos. And while the advisor’s role is supposed to be limited to providing guidance as to the law and its applicability with regard to the matters taken up by the grand jurors, in San Bernardino County the advisor has taken on a more powerful and controlling role than is provided for under the law, often leading the grand jury, seeking to control it or curtail it, rather than simply serving to provide legal guidance. In many cases over the years the areas into which grand juries have sought to insert themselves have been rife with embarrassment or worse for the district attorney, his office, or the offices or functions of his political allies and associates in and out of county government. In some cases, a grand jury has gotten a hold on some issue that, if or when fully exposed and documented, might have or did lead to individuals, groups, businesses or entities harmed by that action filing civil action in the form of a lawsuit that could have resulted in or did lead to an adjudicated verdict or settlement that could have or did cost the county substantial amounts of money. On more than one occasion, these incipient investigations have been smothered by the grand jury advisor, almost always at the insistence of the district attorney himself.

Yet that is not how the system was intended to work as, indeed, the civil grand jury process was designed as a means of accountability for all elements of the local governmental structure, including the district attorney and his office.

It is that abasement of the grand jury’s function that has led to the current contretemps.

The 2014-15 Grand Jury took up a number of issues, including at least three pertaining to the sheriff’s department. Those involved looking into the conditions at five of the detention facilities/jails the department runs, the department’s towing procedures and an examination of the department’s aviation division.
All three of those investigations dealt with potentially explosive issues.

Even as the grand jury was looking into the conditions in the county jails, four separate lawsuits were filed in roughly the same time frame alleging a pattern of guard-on-prisoner brutality that included beatings, the use of electric shock and sadistic sexual abuse. The FBI launched an investigation as well, “walking off” from the West Valley Detention Center four jailors who were subsequently, along with one other deputy, fired by the department. Nevertheless, the 2014-15 Grand Jury Report made no mention of the abuse of prisoners.

The investigation of the department’s towing procedures came about after complaints were made that vehicles impounded by tow companies with towing service arrangements with the sheriff’s department’s various substations were subsequently purchased by department personnel at lien sales conducted by those towing companies. While the grand jury report acknowledged reports of “employees purchasing vehicles at lien sales after a vehicle has been impounded by a tow company or after a vehicle had been seized during an investigation,” the report made no specific references to the sheriff’s department personnel who had actually made those purchases. Rather, the report stated somewhat languidly that steps are to be taken to put into each of the sheriff’s stations’ towing service agreements an addendum that states “All companies participating in the towing service agreement will no longer be allowed or permitted to sell and or give vehicles, motorcycles, motorized vehicles and/or any other property directly related to the towing businesses that are currently enrolled in the towing service agreement to a sheriff’s department employee and/or their immediate family.”

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