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Grand Jury probes Inyo D.A.’s Office

July 19, 2012

Art Maillet

Even Inyo County’s Grand Jury, which is charged with investigating “willful or corrupt misconduct in office,” couldn’t get an answer out of District Attorney Art Maillet as to why his office released inappropriate information about his political opponent back in 2010.
According to the 2011-12 Grand Jury Final Report, Maillet declined to answer any questions on the matter, citing private personnel matters in his public office.
The jury had met with Maillet to discuss what it called “public criticisms” of the D.A.’s Office, including his refusal to release any information to the media so it can report on matters of public record to taxpaying citizens.
Specifically, the Grand Jury wanted to address:
• What it called an increased number of summons for potential jurors;
• Plea bargaining and sentencing guidelines and time-lines;
• The D.A.’s Office’s “no comment” policy regarding the media; and
• The 2010 release of private information from the D.A.’s Office to the media regarding one of Maillet’s political opponents.
In its report, the Grand Jury said “media relations are important to the operation of any government. There is a lack of communication between the District Attorney and news sources in the public’s right to know, even when dealing with information having nothing to do with attorney-client privilege.”
According to the Grand Jury, Maillet said his “no comment” policy stems from a “flow if misinformation and misstatements through the press.”
This was not Maillet’s stated reason for the gag order when it was initially implemented shortly after he lost a change of venue hearing in a high-profile murder case in 2010. At that time, Maillet said he would no longer be speaking to the media because its representatives had “sensationalized” the murder case, causing him to lose the change of venue motion.
Furthermore, at no point in the two years since the gag order was issued has this media outlet been notified by Maillet or anyone else from the District Attorney’s Office of any publishing of “misinformation or misstatements” – either as a reason for declining to comment or in an effort to correct the historical record.
The Grand Jury recommended that the D.A. make regular press releases, in writing, to the media, which would provide a record of what he released, while giving media outlets a reliable way to obtain information from his office.
The Grand Jury Report also said, “The county should establish an ongoing workshop for all county executives on ways to keep and improve media and public relations.”
The recommendation goes on to say that future Grand Juries should continue to monitor the communication problems and provide a format for meeting with a media spokesperson and county executives to address further problems.
On the topic of a release of private information about a political opponent, the Grand Jury Report states that, “the District Attorney would not discuss what he expressed was an ‘internal personnel issue.’”
The report also states that Maillet did have advanced knowledge of the release of that information.
The release of information about the D.A.’s political opponent was “reviewed and concluded by the State Attorney General and the State Bar Association for ethics violations,” the jury’s report states.
The A.G.’s Office ultimately declined to pursue the matter, according to County Counsel Randy Keller, who shares the view that any information related to the incident in question is private because it involves personnel matters. This view, according to independent legal counsel consulted by The Inyo Register, is held erroneously.
The A.G.’s Office released a report of its findings to the county as part of its investigation of misconduct in the D.A’s Office. Two separate Public Records Act requests submitted to the county by The Inyo Register as far back as October 2011 were rejected by Keller on the grounds that “the investigation relates to personnel matters regarding current and former employees of Inyo County. These matters are confidential and not subject to public dissemination.”
Keller nevertheless wished to stress “that the matter was appropriately addressed by the county.” In an initial telephone interview prior to the first Public Records Act request, he said of the A.G.’s report, “We saw it and took it under advisement.”
However, lawyers with the California Newspapers Publishers Association said the personnel exemption cited by the county as a reason for not releasing the report is discretionary, meaning it does not outright prohibit the county from releasing the report. In other words, according to the CNPA, the county can still release the report while redacting the information it feels violates employee privacy.
This was pointed out to Keller in the Register’s second Public Records Act request, which was still denied.
In its conclusion, the Grand Jury said while Maillet, “is to be commended for defending his ‘personnel issue’ confidentiality position, it is the recommendation by this Grand Jury that he be more forthcoming with public information, and its release, upon request.”
The Grand Jury also said it was concerned about an increased number of jury summons going out for court appearances.
“In this we addressed the requirement that citizens are, in essence, required to put their lives on hold until the trial date, which can then be cancelled, and the summons cycle begins anew,” the report states.
The report goes on to state that the Grand Jury recognizes that the jury summons cycle is necessary, but “irritating to citizens with other plans when, at the last minute, the jury summons is cancelled.”
The report also acknowledges that each summons is an expense to citizens and the county due to travel expense, job substitute pay the necessity of childcare and the summons of law enforcement personnel who are often required to testify at trial.
“Trial judges, while adhering to a defendant’s trial and plea-bargaining rights, should hold all parties to timely plea processes before setting trial dates,” the Grand Jury Report states. “Plea deals should be agreed upon prior to the trial date, and there should be no last-minute ‘sweeteners’ offered at or on the date of trial.”
The Grand Jury goes on to say that the presiding judges may hold a joint meeting with both prosecution and defense teams “and cause them to believe that the present system of ‘waiting until the other side folds’ serves no one in assuring fair and prompt adjudications of cases.”
The report claims that Maillet “strongly refutes” any allegations related to plea-bargaining in a timely manner, and said it is his policy to offer a reasonable settlement early in the court proceedings. “The D.A. stated he was well aware of the inconvenience suffered by jurors, perspective (sic) jurors and trial participants, and is in agreement that some solutions should be found,” the Grand Jury said.
To accomplish that goal, the Grand Jury recommended the court system, as recommended by County Administrative Officer Kevin Carunchio, hire a retired judge from outside the area to head a panel directed to study the current court system and recommend improvements.
Maillet and the Inyo County Board of Supervisors are required by law to respond to the Grand Jury Report within 90 days of its release. Those responses will be discussed at a future Board of Supervisors meeting.

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