Amid a spectacle raw with anger and emotion, four El Dorado County supervisors voted Tuesday to ask a judge to decide whether their colleague, Ray Nutting, should be removed from office.
It was another searing chapter in the political saga of the embattled supervisor as fellow board members went into closed session without him to discuss whether to kick him out for his conviction on four misdemeanors last week.
But before they convened with the county attorney and outside legal counsel, they got an earful from Nutting’s wife, Jennifer, who took to a lectern to blast authorities who “maliciously prosecuted my husband.”
And they received a tongue-lashing from a stream of the supervisor’s supporters. They packed the board room in Placerville, carrying signs reading, “The jury spoke – Keep Nutting in office” and “Private or public lynching is no longer legal in Hangtown.”
Nutting, 54, was acquitted of three felony malfeasance charges last Wednesday in connection with allegations that he failed to properly disclose more than $70,000 in state grant income for clearing brush on his family’s 340-acre ranch in Somerset.
However, jurors did find the four-term supervisor guilty of six misdemeanor government code violations. The misdemeanors involved improperly accepting loans from two county employees and a construction contractor to post $55,000 in bail after Nutting had been ordered to surrender on the felony charges nearly a year ago.
Under state law, Nutting would have had to forfeit his seat if he had been convicted of a felony. The law also allows for removal from office for “any offense involving violation” of an officeholder’s “official duties.”
El Dorado County Counsel Ed Knapp announced after the closed session that the other four supervisors voted to have visiting Superior Court Judge Timothy S. Buckley determine whether Nutting remains in office. Buckley is due to sentence the supervisor on the misdemeanor counts on June 6.
“The Board of Supervisors met with legal counsel and discussed whether Supervisor Nutting was suspended by operation of law by the jury verdict on May 14,” Knapp said. “Judge Buckley will decide whether or not the misdemeanor convictions result in Supervisor Nutting’s removal from office.”
He added that supervisors didn’t want to take any action on Nutting’s fate that could be perceived as influencing “the judge’s decision at sentencing” or could make the board “subject to attack” from a protesting public.
The board was vilified by a procession of speakers Tuesday morning, including by a county employee who put up money to help secure Nutting’s release from jail and numerous other speakers who charged that he had been wrongfully prosecuted.
“We’re really upset,” said Linda Colombo, a Nutting supporter who lives in his supervisorial district. “I voted for Ray, and the board thinks they can take him out. What happened to a vote of the people?”
A stirring moment was delivered by Jennifer Nutting. Saying she was taking the lectern against her husband’s wishes, she stood up for the man she argued was “falsely accused … and treated as a criminal.”
“I’m not somebody to give you a sad story or ask for pity,” Jennifer Nutting said as her husband, seated with other supervisors, began to wipe away tears. “I’m here to say I give thanks to my hero, my warrior, my husband. … I battle every day to forgive the people who maliciously prosecuted my husband because he did not fit their mold.”
Ray Nutting’s attorneys argue that the misdemeanor convictions don’t require that he lose his seat. After his colleagues’ vote to refer the matter to the sentencing judge, Nutting said: “I’ve been found not guilty of three felonies. Other than that, I’m under a gag order and I’ll be discussing the matter with my attorneys.”
Floyd F. Feeney, a UC Davis law school professor specializing in criminal and election law, said the issue of whether Nutting was disqualified from serving in political office “is not an easy question to answer.”
He said it will depend on whether the judge rules that Nutting’s receipt of loans for bail amounts to official misconduct. He said supervisors were right to ask the judge in the criminal case for a clarifying ruling.
“It certainly makes the jobs of the supervisors easier if the judge would tell them. … Whether he (Buckley) will choose to do it is another question,” Feeney said. “I don’t think the judge is obligated to do it, but he might. It certainly wouldn’t be improper.”
Prosecutors, including El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson and the state attorney general’s office, had tacked on the misdemeanor charges after Nutting’s arrest on the felonies. They argued that state law bans elected officials from borrowing money from any person working for their office or governmental agency or from any contractor doing business with the county.
Two county employees, Katherine “Kitty” Miller, Nutting’s personal assistant, and Catherine Tyler, a clerk for the Board of Supervisors, provided $47,000 and $8,000 respectively to Jennifer Nutting for her husband’s bail.
Douglas Veerkamp, a building contractor with business with the county, also wired $20,000 into the supervisor’s family bank account as Nutting faced arrest. The Nuttings returned the money the same day, saying it wasn’t needed.
Prosecutors are yet to declare whether they intend to retry Nutting on a fourth felony charge. Jurors had deadlocked, 7-5 in favor of conviction, on a charge alleging that Nutting submitted false paperwork to the state when he completed herbicide work on his ranch.
Supervisor Ron Briggs said other board members and county counsel believed that Nutting’s conviction on the misdemeanors meant that he was suspended from office pending his sentencing. Nutting has refused to step down or stop attending board meetings.
After the closed session Tuesday, supervisors abruptly canceled the rest of their agenda Tuesday as well as the board’s scheduled June 3 meeting.
“The board has been really considerate of Supervisor Nutting and his family,” Briggs said. “This is a time for him to step back, if only to say, ‘Hey, I’m not going to come to any meetings for the next couple of weeks’ so the county can do its business. But he chooses not to do that.”
Among those who turned out to argue on Nutting’s behalf was Tyler, the board clerk who had helped with his bail.
Tyler, who says she has been friends with Nutting since 1992, said she put up the money voluntarily and got it back as soon as he was freed from jail. She said she was shocked his acceptance of her help constituted a crime.
“I don’t think that’s just,” Tyler said. “This was not done because of an employer-employee relationship. It was done because of friendship.”
Call The Bee’s Peter Hecht, (916) 326-5539.