Matt Darby, a candidate for Tulare County District Attorney (TCDA) and his supporters claim Tim Ward, the incumbent, engages in “pay to play politics.” Ward’s supporters claim Darby is playing just that – politics.
Voters will have their say June 5.
Darby has highlighted three cases where Ward allegedly used his position as District Attorney to help his friends and campaign donors.
Ward denies these allegations saying,”No prosecutor in this Office will favor campaign donors in their decisions. All cases will be reviewed based upon the facts contained in the reports. Likewise, it would be unfair to hold a campaign donor to a higher standard than required by law.”
Safety Violations at Setton Farms
In 2014, a sanitation worker assigned to clean machinery for sorting pistachios lost her footing and fell while working at the Setton Farms processing facility. When she reached out her right hand to break her fall, it came into contact with an unguarded moving conveyor belt and she was drawn into the rollers resulting in serious injury to her right arm.
Setton Pistachio of Terra Bella has been a family owned Pistachio company since the 1980’s. The company harvests, processes, and packages pistachios and is one of the largest pistachio growers and processors in the country.
According to CAL/OSHA, a division of occupational safety and health for the state, Setton Farms violated a labor code that states that the belt guard “shall be such that a person cannot reach behind it and become caught in the nip point between the belt, chain, drum, pulley or sprocket.”
CAL/OSHA referred the case to the TCDA in October of 2014. In August of 2015 the DA’s office reported back to CAL/OSHA that it declined to file due to insufficient evidence to support a criminal prosecution.
Darby claims no case was filed because Setton Farms is a major Ward campaign donor. From July of 2014 to June of 2015 the company has donated $21,000.
After the case was closed Setton donated an additional $10,000 more to Ward’s campaign.
Assistant District Attorney Dave Alavezos denies that their office dismissed the case. He stated that as a result of a 2011 employee death at the processing plant the two cases overlapped and resulted in an extension of the injunction for one year.
“As a result, the duration of the proposed civil injunction was extended one year for this incident. The civil judgment and injunction were entered into on June 2, 2014. It included training, several hundred thousand dollars in civil penalties which are separate from any civil judgment to which the employee may have been entitled. On December 31, 2017, the injunction was ended with no further reported violations.
Over a year after the injunction was ordered, CAL/OSHA in July of 2015 submitted the 2014 incident requesting a violation of the injunction. They were informed the incident was not a violation of the injunction,” Alavezos said.
Darby claims that the two cases did not fold into each other.
“The TCDA rejected the case outright without filing criminal or civil charges. They did nothing,” he said.
Former San Benito District Attorney John Sarsfield, who is a Darby supporter, countered by saying that because Ward had received $21,000 in donations from Setton Farms he should have recused himself and referred the case to the Kern County DA as he did with the case against former Police Chief Jerry Breckinridge.
Ward Contributor Amends Conviction without DA’s Objection
In March of 2015, a Visalia business owner and resident who requested that his name not be used, filed suit to change a battery conviction to a lesser violation of disturbing the peace. The defendant filed what is referred to as a writ of coram nobis so he could legally own a gun.
Federal law prohibits anyone with a battery conviction from owning a gun.
A Darby supporter who contacted the Valley Voice about the coram nobis, claims that the defendant is a friend and contributor of Ward. He said that this type of “extraordinary writ” is only allowed in 15 states and is almost never granted.
The Darby supporter related that when Ward was the Assistant District Attorney in 2008, their office received a memorandum from California State Attorney General Jerry Brown warning that individuals were using the coram nobis to subvert federal law on domestic abusers owning firearms.
Darby claimed that Ward did not file an opposition to the defendant’s motion because between the years of 2014 and 2016 the defendant donated thousands of dollars to Ward’s campaign.
Darby said it was clever the way in which the defense attorney for the defendant was able to discern a way through federal and state law to put the defendant in a legal position to possess a firearm.
“In fact, I recall that the Attorney General years ago had asked DA’s offices to object if a local superior court granted a motion to vacate aka Writ of Error Corum Nobis and then refer it to the attorney general to file a writ/appeal. Ward apparently disregarded this directive,” he said.
Alavezos disagrees with Darby’s supporters and Darby’s comments. He said that the TCDA did the right thing in not filing an opposition to the Writ of Error Coram Nobis.
Alavezos confirmed the details of the case but said the defendant had satisfied the strict criteria to file such a writ.
“There was no benefit to the People in opposing the Writ of Coram Nobis as the case was 19 years old, the defendant had completed probation, the ten year California firearm ban had passed, and the court had already dismissed the case and the conviction had been expunged,” said Alavezos.
Investigation into HCCA
In March of 2016 the Valley Voice and the Visalia Times-Delta started reporting about an unaccounted $50 million dollars in Tulare Regional Medical Center (TRMC) construction bond money. The missing $50 million was part of an $85 million dollar bond that was approved in 2005 to build a new tower at TRMC. Ten years later the tower stood half finished.
In January of that year, Bond Oversight Committee member Alberto Aguilar very publicly asked Assemblyman Devon Mathis to request a Joint Legislative Audit Committee audit on TRMC to find out what happened with the bond money. It was widely publicized that Mathis did not request the audit.
Also in March of that year, the Tulare County Grand Jury released “Tower of Shame,” in which was reported, “Seven months of intense investigation has brought the Grand Jury to the conclusion that millions of dollars in public funds have not been accounted for by the TLHCD.”
The report added that millions of dollars were spent on unplanned construction costs or matters not directly related to construction and that the bond oversight committee could not function because it was never given sufficient information.
In June of 2016 an ugly primary battle ensued between Mathis and Challenger Rudy Mendoza for Assembly District 26. The battle was fueled by the fact that Mathis did not request an audit of TRMC of the missing $50 million. Mathis did not order the audit allegedly because he owed the CEO of Healthcare Conglomerate Associates (HCCA), Dr. Benny Benzeevi, a favor, according to Aguilar.
In August, Tulare voters delivered a 33-point rebuke of Measure I, a bond measure promoted by Benzeevi that would have approved a new $55 million bond to complete the hospital tower. The measure was defeated because Tulare residents were well aware of the missing funds from the previous bond and didn’t trust HCCA to administer any additional money.
Darby and his supporters believe that given the fact it was widely known there were millions in missing public funds, Ward should have started his own investigation.
Darby claims that because Ward received $21,000 in campaign donations from Benzeevi that he was engaging in pay to play politics.
Alavezos and Ward retort that no criminal allegations were referred to the DA’s office until July of 2017 and that they started their investigation soon after.
“The Office of the District Attorney does not initiate criminal investigations based upon rumor, speculation or inadmissible hearsay obtained from newspaper articles or online blogs. The legal standard for a probable cause requirement cannot be established from this type of inadmissible hearsay, and could raise legal and ethical issues resulting in malicious prosecution liability,” Ward said.
Alavezos added that, “The grand jury did not mention it was concerned that there was evidence of embezzlement or any other type of criminal activity. In addition, the grand jury did not request the District Attorney investigate any criminal activity during or at the conclusion of their investigation.”
He pointed out that the grand jury members understood the process and had referred other cases to the DA’s office. “This Grand Jury would have referred the matter to us if they believed a crime had occurred,” he said.
Citizens for Hospital Accountability, a group formed to campaign against HCCA and Measure I, agrees with Darby. The group wrote on Facebook,
“Our Facebook friends and fellow citizens have asked us many times about why this is happening to our hospital. Shouldn’t the District Attorney, the Attorney General, the “Feds,” or lawmakers get involved? Yes they should, but no, they haven’t. This is why our group, Citizens for Hospital Accountability, was formed in the first place: because the powers-that-be have turned a blind eye.”
Ward counters concerning all the cases handled by his office by saying, “With regard to the other case matters which were submitted to the Office; each case was reviewed by a Senior Prosecutor who based their decision on the information contained in the case files. Those decisions have been reviewed by an Assistant District Attorney who has agreed with the prior decisions.”
“I stand behind the decisions of our well trained staff,” said Ward.