California’s Attorney General could investigate why Sutter County grand jury quit

YUBA CITY — Members of a Sutter County grand jury charged with investigating the operations of local government entities resigned in protest in late June, just days before their term ended, leaving the contents of their yearlong inquiry a mystery.

In a letter sent June 25, the 17 members of the 2017-18 Sutter County Grand Jury told two county Superior Court judges they were “prevented from fulfilling our duty as the watchdog for Sutter County” and would not publish a final report. Alarmed residents showed up at a county board of supervisors meeting Tuesday, urging supervisors to do everything they could to investigate the unusual situation.

Grand jurors, judges and county officials, some of whom received a preliminary copy of the jury’s report, are sworn to secrecy under California law, which requires grand jury proceedings to remain confidential until the final report is released. Civil grand juries are empaneled each year, and are made up of ordinary citizens who independently investigate city, county and other local government agencies.

Two supervisors wrote to state Attorney General Xavier Becerra last week, urging him to investigate why the jury resigned and decided not to release its yearlong investigation.

At the county board of supervisors meeting, speakers praised the jurors, about 10 of whom were in attendance, and pressed supervisors to ensure Becerra does all he can to get answers.

“I don’t care how this gets fixed, as long as it gets fixed,” said Elaine Miles, who served on the county’s grand jury in 1992. “Let’s make sure that we get this cleaned up so the jury can do the things that they have committed themselves to.”

Sutter resident Mike Ziegenmeyer criticized the supervisors for waiting so long to reach out to Becerra, and wanted the issue resolved as soon as possible. “Something fishy’s going on here,” he said.

None of the jurors spoke at the meeting, and all refused to be interviewed.

“I have no comment,” jury forewoman Frances Hill said as she walked out of the meeting.

Beckie Jennings, the president of the Sutter County Grand Jurors’ Association, a group that educates jurors about their duties, emailed the Board of Supervisors in early August, urging them to reach out to Becerra. She wrote that she has heard allegations that the jurors were threatened with libel lawsuits if they released the report.

“Our citizens have a right to know whether or not our grand jury system was compromised and to discover if there was in fact improper pressure placed on the jury to redact information from their report or too not publish their findings,” she wrote to supervisors.

Jennings spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, and said the entire incident is “gobsmacking” to her. But she doesn’t blame the jurors.

”I’m so proud of this jury,” she said. She “can only surmise things went terribly wrong somewhere in the process for this dedicated group of community-oriented citizens to feel they had no other choice but to resign and withhold their report.”

Jennings has had very limited communications with the jurors, and said they don’t want to get in trouble for speaking about the issue.

“There are some very high-level people in this process, and they’re concerned about retaliation,” she said.

County Supervisor Mat Conant is not sure whether Becerra will be able to interview the grand jurors themselves, but thinks it can’t hurt to ask him to look into the issue.

“It’s my understanding that he can investigate ... the process, what happened, what went wrong with the grand jury,” Conant said. “I hope it does some good. If we don’t try it, we’ve got nothing.”

Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, also sent a letter to Becerra requesting his assistance and asking him to investigate whether the grand jury’s supervising judge required redactions to the report and if outside groups communicated with the jury before it decided not to publish its report.

“If a report is not published, the community deserves to know the circumstances that lead to this decision and whether or not the legal process was followed accordingly,” Gallagher wrote.

Conant said he was stunned when he found out the jury report wouldn’t be released. He’d never heard of something like that happening.

“I’m just dumbfounded,” he said. “I don’t know if they had good reason. It’s just a mess, because it doesn’t look good.”

Conant said the grand jury gets nearly $100,000 each year for its investigative work – one reason he says taxpayers are asking him what’s going on.

“That’s what’s really disturbing, that people donate a year of their time, and a lot of hours, and then resign before the report comes out,” he said. “What if it happens again? That’s very concerning to me.”

Sutter Superior Court Executive Officer Stephanie Hansel said the court “is not aware of any pressure placed upon the grand jury to not publish a report.” County Administrator Scott Mitnick said there was no direct communication between the grand jury and county counsel.

In January, the grand jury made what officials say was an unprecedented move, requesting $10,000 from the county to hire an outside attorney for its investigation. But again, further details were shrouded in secrecy, per state law.

“They were unable to tell me what (the outside counsel) was for,” Mitnick said. “They did not reveal what they were investigating.”

Conant said the grand jury can get legal advice from county counsel, its presiding Sutter Court judge, the District Attorney’s Office and the state Attorney General’s Office, so the request for outside aid was surprising.

“There must be some conflict of interest for them not to be able to advise (the jury),” he said.

Becerra’s office did not respond to a request for comment about whether he would be investigating the grand jury proceedings.