At its Jan. 27 meeting, the Idyllwild Fire Protection District Commission voted to send a letter to Riverside Superior Court Judge Harold Hopp objecting to the behavior of the current grand jury and its treatment of witnesses representing the district.
In a letter Commission President Jerry Buchanan and Fire Chief Patrick Reitz signed after the meeting, the commission requested Hopp, who presides over the grand jury, “… [to] take appropriate action to rein in this grand jury and put a stop to the intimidating tactics and repeated unfounded investigations. The IFPD also requests the presiding judge to instruct the grand jury regarding their repeated efforts to compel unsworn testimony.”
“I testified before the grand jury in December and it was very interesting,” Buchanan said. “It was a fishing expedition. They weren’t interested in 10 years of financial reports, just interested in our checking accounts.”
The letter describes several instances where an individual from the district, such as Reitz, commissioners Larry Donahoo and Nancy Layton, were asked to give sworn testimony. But it relates that when they requested the presence of district counsel while they testified, the grand jury refused to permit an attorney in the room.
California law permits the presence of an attorney representing witnesses before a civil grand jury. Section 939.22 (a) of the state Penal Code states, “Any witness who is called to give testimony under oath before a civil grand jury may have counsel present on his or her behalf while he or she is testifying.”
However, the counsel may not object to any questions asked of the witness or otherwise speak to the grand jury, they may only advise the witness during the course of the examination. Further, this section of law is repealed on Jan. 1, 2017 unless it is reauthorized before that date.
After Reitz’s request for the presence of counsel was refused, the grand jury said it would treat his testimony as though it were given without an oath. Layton, who refused to testify, was threatened with contempt of court, but the grand jury agreed to a compromise and she returned to testify with counsel in the middle of January.
“I’m very glad I had legal representation in the room when giving testimony,” she said.
After considerable discussion about the letter’s language and tone, the commission voted 3-1 in favor after a few modifications, which Buchanan suggested. For example, the words “unfounded” and “vindictive” were deleted from the first paragraph’s description of the allegations against the grand jury.
Commissioner Rhonda Andrewson supported sending a letter to complain about the treatment afforded IFPD representatives, but found some of the language too aggressive.
“If we soften our point, it won’t be taken seriously. It’s meant to get the judge’s attention,” Reitz replied. He and several commissioners described their treatment as disrespectful and negative.
Reitz indicated that he had spoken to a district attorney’s office in another county who characterized this grand jury as “rogue.”
However, John Hall, information specialist for the Riverside County District Attorney’s office, wrote in an email, “This would fall under the civil grand jury and we typically are not involved in those. We are directly involved in the criminal grand jury actions, such as when we present a case to a grand jury for a criminal indictment.”
Karen Jahr, president of the California Grand Jurors’ Association, said it does not compile information about this type of behavior. “The California Grand Juror’s Association is a nonprofit corporation whose mission is to support the California grand jury system. Our primary activity is the training of grand jurors,” Jahr said.
A copy of the signed letter is available on the Town Crier website (Idyllwildtowncrier.com).