Tulare Public Cemetery District (TPCD) unanimously censured Trustee Alberto Aguilar for disclosing information discussed during closed session. With Aguilar recusing himself, the trustees also voted to send the matter to the Tulare County Grand Jury for an investigation.
Though reported in the Sun-Gazette that the grand jury could remove Aguilar, the grand jury does not directly have that power.
Aguilar was censured over an alleged breach of attorney client privilege in an email sent to the Valley Voice on May 22. According to County Counsel lawyer Aaron Zaheen, “Included in that email were items only ever discussed by the board in closed session. Breach of this privilege is a misdemeanor under government code for dereliction of duty by a public official.”
Aguilar’s email to the Valley Voice was in response to that newspaper’s discussion with lawyer Leonard Herr about Aguilar not receiving TPCD documents after multiple requests.
“Whenever a public agency denies public financial information and/or any public records, it’s because they are trying to hide it from the public,” said Aguilar in the May 22 email.
John Sarsfield, from the law offices of Melo and Sarsfield, disagrees with Zaheen about the consequences of disclosing information discussed in closed session.
“It’s not a misdemeanor or any other crime,” he said.
Sarsfield also said the grand jury does not have the power themselves to remove an appointed public official from any office. The grand jury can conduct an investigation and then vote by a 12 to 19 majority to refer the case to the Tulare County District Attorney (TCDA).
The TCDA, if it takes the case, would then have to go to trial, said Sarsfield, where a jury would have to unanimously find Aguilar guilty of committing something close to a criminal offense. Sarsfield has only heard of one instance of a jury removing a public official after a grand jury referral, but the case involved embezzlement.
“It has to be real malfeasance and not just because the trustee is a pain in the ass,” he said.
Censured for… what exactly?
Confusion reigns over what exactly Aguilar did that earned a censure.
Aguilar said that his second to last paragraph of the email contained the offending statement.
The paragraph states, “The Chairman of the Board has confirmed that the top of the vault where Dolly Faria is buried is less than 12 inches from the turf above the vault. To my knowledge, members of the Dolly Faria family have not been officially notified by the district about this matter.”
Dolly Faria’s family plot was allegedly involved in an illegal double burial that has been widely publicized but not proven. A TPCD groundskeeper claims he found a human skeleton while digging Faria’s grave in November of 2019. The former office manager, Leonor Castaneda, allegedly told the grounds keeper to place Faria’s vault on top of the bones so the district could proceed with the burial. It is against the law to conduct a burial on top of unidentified human remains and without the family’s consent.
Aguilar did not explain why that particular paragraph in the May 22 email elicited a censure.
Trustee Charlie Ramos insinuated during his public comment that the censure was more complicated than just a breach of attorney client privilege and involved more than just the May 22 email. Ramos said Aguilar voted in closed session in favor of a settlement of nondisclosure for a former employee (Castaneda) but then “took it upon himself to write a statement of fact from closed session and release it to the press.”
But there is nothing in the May 22 email that mentions Castaneda’s settlement. In addition Castaneda’s settlement is a public document and in the hands of the press.
When asked where in the email reveals confidential information about Castaneda’s settlement, Chairperson Xavier Aguilar said he did not want to comment in order to protect the district from potential litigation.
It is believed that Castaneda’s handling of the Faria burial was a major contributing factor to her dismissal and Ramos said that the district had submitted “lengthy findings” about the matter to the Tulare Police Department. Aguilar said he filed his own police report detailing the events around the Faria burial and the double disinterment on March 8 because he didn’t trust the district to do it.
In a statement by a member of the Faria family, they said that they did not believe the groundskeeper’s story about finding human remains in Dolly Faria’s plot.
For fear of retribution from TPCD the groundskeeper who found the bones has not spoken publicly about the incident.
Pot, meet kettle?
Aguilar does not retreat from the fact that the trustees accuse him of possibly disclosing confidential information in regards to alleged illegal activities at the district.
“When we have double disinterments without proper notification and double burials, which are against the law, the public has the right to know.” Aguilar continued, “I will expose any kind of illegal activity or corruption that occurred.”
Aguilar is notoriously tight-lipped about closed-session discussions and has never shared confidential information with the Valley Voice.
Former trustee Vicki Gilson said, “Never, never, Alberto never says a word.” Aguilar said, according to Gilson, “You know I can’t share anything that I learn in closed session.”
Gilson was copied on the May 22 email and is perplexed as to what Aguilar said in the email that wasn’t already public. “Brian (Viera) spilled everything in his lawsuit against the district,” said Gilson. Viera had firsthand knowledge of the alleged finding of the human remains but was not an eyewitness.
Avila said during public comment at the July 7 meeting, “When a trustee puts the district at risk of litigation, you can’t overlook that.” Even though Avila felt the censure was justified he said, “I do it with a heavy and sad heart.”
When Avila was asked if it was hypocritical to vote to censure Aguilar when he has disclosed a wide variety of confidential information discussed in closed session he responded, “I deny that I have said anything important coming out of closed session.”