What does a political prosecution look like? Depending on your perspective, it might look like a peace protester thrown in jail for marching in the street. Or an evangelical Christian convicted of trespassing at an abortion clinic. Even the impeachment of a president for lying about cheating on his wife.
It also could look like Ray Nutting. Though the conservative four-term El Dorado County supervisor and timber rancher probably wouldn’t enjoy the comparison, he is on trial for transgressions so common among elected officials that they are usually dispatched with a slap on the wrist and a fine.
His real crime appears to be occupying the wrong side of a political divide in this county – one that has deepened with the overzealous and politically motivated prosecution by District Attorney Vern Pierson. The three-week trial has resulted in untold costs to the defendant – whose political career has been injured, perhaps fatally – the county, the jurors, the taxpayers and even the DA’s own credibility. No one is going to win here, no matter the ultimate verdict.
Nutting was arrested a year ago and charged with felonies for not reporting income from a federal grant program for brush clearing on his property and conflicts of interest by voting on contracts on which he had an interest. The DA added misdemeanor charges shortly after Nutting’s arrest for improperly requesting bail money from county employees and a county contractor.
Clearly, Nutting is guilty of bad paperwork. He admitted as much during several hours of testimony this week in which he outlined numerous errors he made while filling out the complicated financial disclosure forms. He makes a credible case that these were “honest” mistakes. This doesn’t excuse him of anything, but even with his bad judgment thrown in, the alleged misdeeds don’t rise to the level of a three-week trial and possibility of jail time.
For comparative purposes, consider that Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson was fined $1,000 earlier this year by the Fair Political Practices Commission for failing to report travel expenses, and fined $37,500 in 2012 for not reporting thousands of dollars in donations he sought on behalf of nonprofits. Those fines were appropriate for their individual severity.
Elected officials failing to properly fill out their disclosure forms is quite usual. Pierson, too, appears to have fumbled his financial reporting documents. He received a warning letter from the FPPC that said he violated campaign disclosure provisions, the Mountain Democrat reported in April.
If the DA’s real mission with this prosecution is exposing Nutting as a “hypocrite” – as he put it in court documents – for taking federal funds while railing about the federal government to his tea party supporters, it’s fair to say he’s already won. But being a hypocrite isn’t a crime.
The testimony in the trial is over and the case is now being deliberated by the jury. One would hope the jurors see through the political fog emanating from this case and return a verdict commensurate with the transgression.