Ray Nutting, described by his lawyer as "distraught," is free on $55,000 bail after Tuesday's arrest.

El Dorado supervisor Ray Nutting faces felony charges over state grants

Published: Wednesday, May. 29, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Thursday, May. 30, 2013 - 7:55 am

A veteran El Dorado County supervisor was arrested Tuesday on four felony charges for allegedly shielding more than $70,000 in state income for brush-clearing on a family ranch.

The charges also allege that Supervisor Ray Nutting, 53, violated conflict-of-interest laws by failing to recuse himself from votes on county contracts with conservation districts that distribute the state funds for fire prevention.

Nutting, a fourth-generation rancher and timber harvester, is a well-known political figure who has run six times for the Board of Supervisors, most recently winning his fourth term in 2012.

Nutting earned a reputation as a foil for environmentalists and as a pro-development politician standing against government intrusion on private property rights.

In recent months, he came under political fire for accepting more than $70,000 in California Forest Improvement Program grants in 2003 and 2009 for brush-clearing work he performed himself on his family's 340-acre property in south El Dorado County.

The program is intended to reimburse private landowners to clear brush and remove other fire hazards. Cal Fire officials said such grants are routinely awarded whether property owners hire contractors or do the work themselves.

But Nutting's critics, including El Dorado County officials, charged in recent months that the grants – plus a pending proposal for nearly $50,000 in additional work on his ranch – constituted taking taxpayer funds for personal use.

The criminal charges announced Tuesday by El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson focused on Nutting's alleged failure to list the income on state financial disclosure documents required for public officials. The complaint also alleged he filed false documents for the brush-clearing work.

Nutting's attorney, David Weiner, vehemently defended the supervisor Tuesday, calling the criminal complaint "horse puckey." He said the charges stemmed from innocent errors in paperwork by Nutting and that the supervisor neither had a conflict of interest nor had violated any law.

"He's a farmer. He's not a paper guy," Weiner said. "Everything he did was approved by Cal Fire. They inspected the work, and they approved the payment. That's why I am saying this is horse puckey. He will never be convicted by a jury."

Weiner said Nutting didn't know he was required to disclose the grant income on a 2010 California statement of economic interest – but did so in an amended form this year.

Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said the agency is providing "information and documentation" on grants Nutting received. But Berlant said the El Dorado County charges "are separate from the work itself" that was completed and passed state inspection on the Nutting ranch.

In April, El Dorado County Auditor-Controller Joe Harn told The Bee that he believed an invoice submitted by Nutting to the state for brush-clearing work appeared to be "an intentionally misleading bogus document" that violated a state false claims act.

On Tuesday, Board of Supervisors chairman Ron Briggs, another critic of Nutting, said the district attorney's investigation into the matter speaks to "the integrity of the county and the board.

"I want to make sure the public has firm confidence we're going to do everything the right way – not sweeping anything under the rug," Briggs said.

At the El Dorado County Chamber of Commerce, CEO Laurel Brent-Bumb praised Nutting as a "huge supporter of timberlands and property rights" who backed the chamber's unsuccessful effort to get a shuttered sawmill reopened in the town of Camino.

She added: "Whether it's Ray Nutting or my sister, people in America are innocent until they are proven guilty."

Local environmental activist Steven Proe characterized Nutting as a pro-development supervisor who sold himself "as if he is against the government." Proe took issue with Nutting accepting state funds "to feather his nest."

"He is not an environmentalist in regards to cleaning up his own land," added Proe, a former member of Taxpayers for Quality Growth, which sued the county over its development plan. "He was cleaning up his land to make his pockets deeper."

Nutting, who was released from custody Tuesday after posting $55,000 in bail, is expected to continue his duties on the Board of Supervisors. However, Briggs said Nutting told colleagues he would recuse himself from any county budget decisions involving the District Attorney's Office.

Nutting, instructed by his attorney not to comment Tuesday, said in April that he did nothing wrong and that the "accusations and political spin" directed against him were "absolutely incorrect."

He later posted a document on his county website asserting that he properly applied for fire protection grants for small forest landowners funded under a 2002 voter-approved initiative, Proposition 40. The statement said Nutting "has not used or attempted to use his official position … to influence any decision related to the Prop. 40 grant program."

Weiner said the supervisor felt devastated after his arrest.

"He is just distraught about this – that he is being accused of this kind of stuff," Weiner said. "He is very emotional about it. I'd like to see him handle it like it is water off of a duck's back. But he is not built that way. This is hurting him."

Nutting is scheduled to be arraigned June 10.

Call The Bee's Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539. Richard Chang contributed to this report.

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