Ad Watch: Attack on Roger Dickinson misleads

A group funded largely by doctors and dentists is airing a television ad slamming Democratic Assemblyman Roger Dickinson for problems in Sacramento’s Child Protective Services unit during the years he was on the county’s Board of Supervisors. The group, called Californians Allied for Patient Protection, is backing Dickinson’s rival, Democratic Assemblyman Richard Pan, in their race for state Senate. Advertising by such outside groups has made the 6th Senate District contest the most expensive same-party legislative race in California.

Following is text of the ad and an analysis by Laurel Rosenhall of The Bee Capitol Bureau.

Text: “Years of child abuse, neglect, homicide. The grand jury uncovers a crisis at Child Protective Services. Despite years of warnings, Board of Supervisors Chairman Roger Dickinson does nothing. Another year, another grand jury investigation, another wave of child deaths. Dickinson has, quote, ‘no reaction.’ Now, instead of protecting children, Dickinson works in the Assembly to silence the grand jury system that exposed his failed leadership.”

Analysis: The basic facts in the ad are true: Sacramento’s grand jury investigated CPS several times during the 17 years Dickinson served on the county Board of Supervisors and found numerous problems that it said contributed to the deaths of children. Then, in 2011 – his first year in the Assembly – Dickinson wrote a bill to alter the way grand juries do their investigations.

But the ad misleads by omitting context, implying that Dickinson was single-handedly responsible for problems at CPS.

The grand jury report referenced in the ad was prompted by a Sacramento Bee investigation in 2008 that found a growing number of Sacramento children who died of abuse or neglect lived in households that were involved with CPS before their deaths. The grand jury followed up with a scathing report that questioned the management of CPS and the Health and Human Services Department that runs it, saying agency leaders showed “persistent unwillingness to accept responsibility” and that the Board of Supervisors and county executive were “ultimately accountable.”

The claim that Dickinson did nothing is wrong and the statement that he had “no reaction” lacks context. The Bee asked Dickinson about the grand jury’s findings on the day in 2009 the report was released, and Dickinson told reporters he had not read the report so he had no reaction. But in the months that followed, the Board of Supervisors – including Dickinson – approved a series of oversight measures, including bringing in an outside consultant to change practices at CPS and provide monthly progress reports to the board. The county eventually replaced the top two officials in charge of CPS.

After being elected to the Assembly, Dickinson introduced Assembly Bill 622, which called for various changes to grand jury proceedings in civil cases. Early versions of the bill would have required a grand jury to meet with the head of the agency it’s investigating at least 45 days before issuing its report, required that testimony to grand juries be open to the public and the press, and permit witnesses who testify under oath to have an attorney present.

Dickinson argued at the time that the proposal would bring “accountability and accuracy” to grand jury proceedings and limit the possibility of abuses by politically motivated jurors. Associations representing prosecutors and grand juries opposed the bill, arguing it would make it difficult for witnesses to speak candidly and impede their investigations. The bill went through several amendments and squeaked out of the Senate with the bare minimum number of votes necessary to pass.

By the time the bill was signed into law in October 2011, its most controversial provisions had been deleted. The only change enacted in the version signed by Gov. Jerry Brown allows a witness who gives testimony under oath to a civil grand jury to have an attorney present.