Sunday, 28 November 2021

Sheriff, supervisors, DA respond to Grand Jury's report on senior center

LAKE COUNTY – Last week, the Board of Supervisors approved final responses by county department heads to the Lake County Grand Jury's recent report.


The board also offered its own responses to parts of the report that addressed elected officials, one of them Sheriff Rod Mitchell.


This year's Grand Jury report included chapters on oversight of the sheriff's office audit and jail medical service, the sheriff-coroner's office, the Hill Road Correctional Facility, a visit to the sheriff and to Search and Rescue, marijuana and jail rules and three alleged complaints – one regarding a deputy sheriff's alleged misconduct, one concerning sheriff's hiring practices and a third relating to delays into a criminal investigation into missing funds at the Lucerne Senior Center.


Mitchell had 60 days from the July 13 release of the report to respond, he had drafted and submitted a response within days.


In a seven-page letter dated July 16 and addressed to Judge Stephen Hedstrom, presiding judge of the Lake County Superior Court, Mitchell offered his response to the report, which dedicated 18 of its 159 pages to to sheriff's operations.


Mitchell said the 2006-07 report “is one of the most comprehensive that I have seen since I took office in 1995.” Other than a few factual errors and necessary omissions due to space, Mitchell said his own findings differed little from the Grand Jury's.


Some of the oversight issues in the report are, according to the Grand Jury, conducted annually. The Grand Jury's investigation of the jail is a mandatory jury function. The only recommendation the jury made regarding the jail was to aggressively pursue using solar energy at the facility.


For the most part, Mitchell said he agreed with jury recommendations and noted that some already were being undertaken.


The Grand Jury report notes that it investigated a citizen's complaint that a deputy sheriff had consensual sex with a female inmate in the jail. The complaint alleged the deputy was fired and then rehired.


However, the Grand Jury ruled the complaint was based on hearsay, and that after spending “considerable amounts of time” on the investigation, they were unable to find witnesses in the case. In addition, the report stated that the deputy's termination was properly handled and that the deputy was not rehired. As a result, no response from Mitchell was required.


In another complaint regarding sheriff's hiring practices, the Grand Jury also dismissed that complaint, which had questioned why an black applicant was not hired as a deputy sheriff. The Grand Jury found the individual was not hired because of lack of qualifications.


DISAGREEMENT OVER SENIOR CENTER PROBE


Where Mitchell and the Grand Jury appeared to disagree most related to the two-page chapter on the Lucerne Senior Center investigation.


The report explained that the jury received a complaint about the “slowness of the investigation into allegations of unauthorized actions at the Lucerne Alpine Senior Center.”


In 2005, the senior center's board asked authorities for an investigation of its finances after the center's executive director at the time left. That former executive director was Rowland Mosser, who the report does not actually name but which center officials confirmed to Lake County News was the individual in question.


The report states that the sheriff's office conducted an investigation “and discovered there were funds that were unaccounted for.”


The sheriff's office “thoroughly investigated the matter, documented by over 320 pages, but the sheriff's office lacked the financial expertise to investigate it further. Therefore, no immediate action was initiated,” the report stated.


A deputy the Grand Jury interviewed about the investigation “indicated there was wrongdoing,” the report said. The Grand Jury requested a copy of the investigation, and one of its members who had an accounting background reviewed it. The sheriff's office, according to the report, stated they did not have personnel qualified to do an audit.


The report said the Grand Jury then met with District Attorney Jon Hopkins who “indicated that charges will be filed against the former manager.”


The findings in the report state that the sheriff's office was first notified of the center's problems in July 2005 but did not act, and that “lack of attention to this matter continued for two years.”


In addition the report stated that the District Attorney's Office conducted an independent investigation in which it recorded 9,000 pages of bank records as evidence.


“The (Grand Jury) committee determined that inaction to this matter was pervasive and inexcusable,” the report stated.


The report's four recommendations center around forming a white collar crime and fraud unit to deal with investigations like the senior center.


Although Mitchell wasn't required to respond to the report, Mitchell offered a lengthy response, pointing to inaccuracies in the Grand Jury's timeline and stating his disagreements with some of their conclusions.


In particular, Mitchell said his deputy did not tell the Grand Jury that there was “wrongdoing,” but that there were suspect circumstances that he did not have the expertise to investigate. “It was for those reasons that he turned to a veteran investigator in the District Attorney's Office who also determined that the situation was troubling but that no crime was readily presented.”


Mitchell further stated the the Grand Jury's statement about the district attorney indicating charges would be filed “is confusing and likely erroneous.”


“I am aware that an investigation is still underway because I have partnered with the DA to further a review of this matter. In addition to providing a car, I agreed to fund an extra-help investigator in the DA’s office specifically to examine the Lucerne Senior Center case. It is unlike the DA pledge to prosecute someone before a case has been concluded, let alone before it has been investigated,” Mitchell wrote.

 

Mitchell said 11 months – not 24 – passed since his department received the complaint in November 2005. In May 2006, a district attorney's investigator was brought in, determining in Aug 2006 that “the records appear suspicious but no specific crime was revealed.”


During this time, Mitchell said his detective on the case transferred. The Grand Jury received the citizen's complaint in October, 2006.


“Lastly, I disagree with the jury’s opinion that our handling of this case was 'inexcusable,'” Mitchell wrote. “This suggests that either: a) we had time to work this case and callously chose not to; or, b) that the other cases that we handled in that time frame were less important than the possible embezzlement at the Lucerne Senior Center. I know the former not to be true. The latter would likely be debated by the many victims of confirmed major crimes that we assisted in that same time frame.”


Mitchell said he agreed with the concept of having the District Attorney's Office handle white collar crime cases.


“They can typically perform their duties without frequent and urgent interruptions as their investigators do not serve as first responders,” Mitchell wrote. “Even when fully staffed, our patrol force is too small to handle the volume of high priority calls for service that we receive without routine assistance from our detectives. Even when fully staffed, our detective bureau is too small to make all cases the highest priority.”


He added that he didn't support a general fund increase for a white-collar crime unit before increasing first responders, criminal investigators and coroner’s investigators in the sheriff’s office.


In his response to the Grand Jury, Hopkins addressed the report's statement that he told grand jurors he would file charges against the senior center's former executive director. “I did not indicate that charges would be filed before the matter was investigated.”


Rather, Hopkins told Lake County News that he told grand jurors he would pursue an investigation of the matter.


Hopkins said he was in favor of a white collar crime unit, but it would have to be created from the ground up. “It can't be taken from what we have now.”


He added, “It would be very beneficial in our efforts to detect and prosecute white collar crime.”


The Board of Supervisors response to the Grand Jury stated that it supported its recommendations for a white collar crime unit, which also would handle elder abuse cases involving fraud of $1,000 or more.


However, the board said the creation of such a unit would depend on available funding, and was technically within the jurisdiction of the district attorney, to whom the board said it defers in the matter.


ANOTHER VIEW OF THE ISSUES


Bron Locke, foreman of this year's Grand Jury, maintained that the senior center's director told the Grand Jury that he contacted the sheriff's office in July 2005, not November 2005. He said they also were informed the District Attorney's Office was notified in July 2005 of the case.


Locke also corrected the reference to 9,000 pages of bank records, which he said actually numbered 900.


On the topic of white collar crime, Locke – emphasizing he was speaking only as a citizen and not as a grand juror – said he was concerned about the closing paragraphs of Mitchell's letter, in which Locke said Mitchell appeared to dismiss white collar crime as unimportant.


The BALCO drug scandal is a white collar crime, said Locke; he added that, had it not been for white collar crime, “Al Capone may never have seen the inside of a jail cell.”


Responded Mitchell, “It is an error for anyone to suggest that I have ever dismissed white collar crime as unimportant. The assignment of a lower priority level to a certain offense does not equate to a dismissal of it. The public expects me to set priorities based upon available resources; it is a standard practice in law enforcement to assign a higher priority level to violent crimes and crimes in progress than to cold-cases involving possible white-collar offenses.


“We receive hundreds of reports of violent and in progress crimes for every one report of a potential white-collar crime,” Mitchell added. “Domestic violence and a problem of youth gang violence are among those higher priority calls and we cannot presently keep up with the growing case load. I support the idea of developing a white-collar crime unit in the county but not before increasing the number of first responders."


E-mail Elizabeth Larson at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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