Ray Nutting goes on trial for felony malfeasance Tuesday, and the political rancor is seething in El Dorado County.
In the courtroom, Nutting, a four-term county supervisor, faces prosecution for alleged misconduct related to state grants he took for clearing brush on his family ranch. But it is the spectacle surrounding his case that envelops this county east of Sacramento.
The prosecution of the veteran timber rancher, a stout defender of private property rights and a hero to tea party conservatives, is revealing angry divisions within the local Republican Party faithful and deep-rooted antagonisms in a county long known for its bare-knuckled politics.
In typically procedural court documents, District Attorney Vern Pierson and his top prosecutor call Nutting a “hypocrite” and blast him for supporting “puppet candidates” for office and directing “underhanded efforts ... to try his case in the media.”
In turn, Nutting ripped the prosecutor, saying, “Pierson is ruthless and will stoop to the lowest levels” to destroy his enemies.
The trial has been preceded by months of angry theatrics as Nutting supporters have jammed meetings of the Board of Supervisors, protesting what they consider “bullying” tactics of a powerful county auditor-controller, Joe Harn, who triggered the prosecution by alerting the district attorney to alleged discrepancies in Nutting’s invoices for state-funded work on his ranch.
Critics of the supervisor, who has recused himself from virtually every board action since his indictment, are calling on him to step down. Meanwhile, divisions over the trial permeate county election races.
The actual legal proceedings, People of the State of Californa v. Raymond James Nutting, will take place at the turn-of-the century courthouse in Old Placerville. A retired state appellate judge from outside the county, Timothy S. Buckley, will preside over the trial because El Dorado judges recused themselves from the case.
Jurors are to hear weeks of testimony and review reams of documents to determine if Nutting committed four felony crimes. The charges include two counts of failing to report state income for brush-clearing and other fire safety work on his 340-acre timber ranch in Somerset. He faces two more felony charges of filing false documents on the work he completed and having a conflict of interest as he voted to fund two local fire districts.
The panel will also determine whether Nutting is guilty of seven misdemeanors for illegally soliciting money from two county workers, a major construction contractor and a local bondsman to bail himself out of jail.
Nutting’s attorney, David Weiner, said the supervisor is being prosecuted over minuscule errors in paperwork because Nutting “has some serious political enemies.”
Dan Dellinger, a local political consultant and Nutting supporter, claims the trial is rooted in vitriol over past political races, including a particularly combative 2010 contest for sheriff between the victorious John D’Agostini, an outside candidate backed by Nutting, and Sheriff’s Capt. Craig Therkildsen, the inside candidate favored by Pierson and much of the county establishment.
“I think this is a sad abuse of power,” said Dellinger, who ran D’Agostini’s campaign and has his own issues with Pierson. The DA sued him in 2012, alleging that Dellinger improperly collected taxpayer funds for work on a fire district parcel tax measure.
Pierson dismisses claims of a politically motivated prosecution as “just silly.” And Chuck Holland, a bail bondsman and Pierson backer who claims Nutting improperly asked him for a loan to cover his bail, said Nutting’s supporters “are so desperate to exonerate Ray that they can’t see the forest through the trees ... Ray has pretty much turned this into a soap box circus.”
Meanwhile, in court papers, Pierson and prosecutor James Clinchard rip the supervisor as a political chameleon who rails against big government, yet takes state funds for work on his family ranch while feigning ignorance about financial disclosure laws.
“Defendant Nutting is a hypocrite,” the prosecutors wrote in an April 1 motion to deny a trial delay. “The public face of ... Nutting is the one that shows up at ... Tea Party events and runs his campaigns as a conservative candidate for smaller government, less tax (and) who opposes the fire tax. But the private face of defendant Nutting is the one that secretly applies for hundreds of thousands of taxpayer financed handouts to work on the Nutting family ranch.”
Nutting legally took advantage of a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection grant program that pays large property owners to clear brush for fire protection, whether they do the work themselves – as Nutting did – or hire contractors. But the indictment alleges that the supervisor committed felony crimes by failing to include his state grant income on a 2010 disclosure form required of elected officials.
Much of the case hinges on Nutting’s relationship with a former official of an obscure local resource district, the Georgetown Resource Conservation District. The official, Al Hubbard, co-signed $49,405 and $22,423 in checks to the supervisor in 2009 on behalf of a separate state agency, the Sierra Coordinated Resource Management Council, that administers the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection grants for brush clearing.
The indictment charges that Nutting committed a felony by later voting to approve county funding for the Georgetown district and its sister El Dorado Resource Conservation District.
The case was triggered by media inquiries into work on Nutting’s ranch that resulted in Cal Fire crews responding to fires that broke out from burn piles as the supervisor cleared vegetation under state contracts. The supervisor was billed $10,660 for fire suppression costs in one of the blazes last November.
Joe Harn, a five-term auditor-controller, said he later reviewed the Cal Fire documents and personally took Nutting to task over a May 26, 2009, invoice. The document, submitted for state reimbursement, was a $27,395 bill from Nutting Brush Clearing to Nutting for tree thinning and pruning and brush disposal on 15 acres, plus herbicide treatment on 60 acres.
He told The Sacramento Bee that the documents indicated Nutting had billed for herbicide treatment on his ranch after the state deadline for the work to have been completed. “I said, Ray, ‘The documents are bogus. They don’t make any sense,’ ” recalled Harn, who said he contacted the district attorney – which Pierson confirms. The eventual indictment against the supervisor, unsealed last June, included a felony count of filing false documents related to invoices for the herbicide work.
Now Harn portrays Nutting as a “puppet master” who is seeking payback by running a candidate against him. He is being challenged in the June election by Mike Owen, co-owner of a Camino winery and a former chief financial officer of the county’s health services agency.
Owen, who considers Harn a political power player who needs to go, denies being recruited by Nutting. But he says he feels for the embattled supervisor.
“Ray’s heart is all about this county,” Owen said. “He is an impetuous guy. But sometimes I wish he would put down the matches. He has had all of those fires on his property, and none of that helps. He is a very controversial figure right now and I’m eager to see his trial completed so that issue goes away.”
Nutting and his wife, Jennifer, contributed $999 to the campaign of Judson Henry, a bankruptcy attorney who filed to run against Pierson for district attorney. Though Henry’s name remains on the ballot, that contest was over in a political heartbeat after bail bondsman Holland hired two private investigators to look into Henry’s residency.
Amid allegations that he was living in a Placer County condominium while claiming to reside at a Placerville house owned by a political consultant loyal to Nutting, Henry abruptly quit the race. He did not return phone calls.
“What happened is that they drove out the competition by bullying them,” Nutting said. “The messaging was that everyone was afraid of Vern because Vern uses his office to investigate his political enemies.”
Nutting’s supporters point to a civil ruling by the state’s campaign watchdog agency, the Fair Political Practices Commission, to argue that he shouldn’t face a criminal trial, especially one for felony crimes. The FPPC imposed a $400 penalty on the supervisor for failing to report $22,000 in state fire prevention grant income in 2009. It sent an advisory letter, saying it didn’t believe Nutting had a conflict of interest related to his board votes to fund local fire districts. The agency later sent a follow-up letter, saying its administrative review has no bearing on the criminal case.
Recently, Frank Stephens, a former member of the county Republican central committee, filed an FPPC complaint against Pierson over campaign banking transactions in 2007. The FPPC’s enforcement division chief, Gary Winuk, sent Pierson a warning letter March 25. He said the DA committed reporting errors by reimbursing himself for $4,100 in personal campaign expenses without first depositing the money into a campaign bank account.
“I’m not charging Mr. Pierson with simple hypocrisy. I’m charging him with major hypocrisy,” Stephens said. “The DA who is charged with upholding the elections laws he is charging Ray Nutting with violating is also violating them.”
Pierson said Stephens’ effort to make the matter a political issue “is pretty desperate.”
Holland, another former Republican central committee member, says Nutting’s case – and his predicament as a supervisor unable to participate in most board votes – is a taint on the county.
“The more he talks, the fewer supporters he has,” Holland said. “A lot of people in this county are firm believers that Ray should probably step down because that’s the right thing to do. He is leaving his district with no representation. He is hamstrung. He can’t vote on anything.”
Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.