Friday, June 16, 2006
C.A. Dismisses Some Charges Against Official Charged With Misuse of Funds
By TINA BAY, Staff Writer
The Third District Court of Appeal yesterday ordered dismissal of a portion of an indictment charging a Northern California elected official with mishandling public funds, but left intact a grand jury accusation that could result in his removal from office even if he is acquitted on the remaining criminal charges.
The justices partially granted and partially denied a petition for writ of mandate and prohibition filed by Sutter County Auditor-Controller Robert E. Stark. The action came nine days after Stark, who has held the office since 1985, won reelection with more than 56 percent of the vote.
The county grand jury investigated Stark and his top assistant after County Administrative Officer Larry Combs presented the Board of Supervisors with a September 2004 report alleging “serious problems” with respect to Stark’s job performance.
Stark, the CAO charged, had usurped the board’s authority by unilaterally amending the county budget. He illegally asserted authority over rates that some county departments were charging other departments to recover the cost of services provided, filed the final budget for fiscal year 2003-2004 more than six months late, erroneously withheld overtime pay from the county’s firefighters in January 2003, and unilaterally transferred money from the county’s general fund reserve to a local water district, Combs told the supervisors.
Writing for the appellate panel, Justice Ronald B. Robie characterized the events as a “turf battle between some of the elected officials in Sutter County,” and observed that “[t]he tenor of the evidence was that Stark was in something of a pitched battle with the county administrative officer and the board of supervisors over the scope of his authority.”
The grand jury charged Stark with 13 violations of Penal Code Sec. 424, which prohibits public officials from using public funds in a manner contrary to law. It also returned a 15-count accusation against Stark and a two-count accusation against Stark’s assistant, Ronda G. Putman.
The quasi-criminal accusation process sets up a trial in superior court. If the trier of fact concludes that the official committed the charged offense, the penalty is removal from office.
Sutter Superior Court Judge Ted H. Hansen set aside one count of the indictment and two counts of the accusation against Stark.
The Court of Appeal, however, said that six more counts of the indictment should be dismissed, and that the accusation against Putman should be dismissed as well.
Penal Code Sec. 424(a) provides for the imprisonment and disqualification of officials who improperly public money in various ways. Justice Robie explained that of the 13 counts against Stark that alleged violations of Sec. 424 subdivision(a), six counts should have been set aside for definitional reasons—according to definitions for the portions of the statute on which those counts were founded, Stark didn’t “use” public funds or make “false entries” or “unauthorized transfers.”
In agreeing with Hansen’s denial of Stark’s motion to set aside the accusation, Robie wrote that “[b]ased on [the] evidence, it is not unreasonable to conclude that Stark did what he did, not so much out of legitimate concern for accounting principles, but because he wanted to assert the authority he claimed in spite of limitations the board had placed on him.”
As for Putman, Robie wrote, the evidence failed to show that she actually knew about or intentionally disregarded certain restrictions when she approved fund transfers that Stark authorized.
“This is to say nothing more than it was negligence for an assistant auditor to do what Putman did. But negligence is not willful misconduct,” he said.
The case is Stark v. Superior Court, C051073.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company