A private lawyer who counsels for District Attorney John
Sarsfield is now acting as a special prosecutor in a criminal case
for the county
– a notion that has raised questions whether it represents a
professional conflict of interest.
A private lawyer who counsels for District Attorney John Sarsfield is now acting as a special prosecutor in a criminal case for the county – a notion that has raised questions whether it represents a professional conflict of interest.

Attorney John Picone has previously advised Sarsfield on a personal legal matter. And Picone currently represents Sarsfield in his capacity as district attorney – Sarsfield was named with other officials, including Sheriff Curtis Hill, in a civil lawsuit filed in February.

Out of the Redwood City office of the national law firm Fish and Richardson P.C., Picone has been acting on the county’s behalf in the criminal case since January.

The case involves Hollister resident Corrine Oloana, who was charged with three felony counts of failing to file income taxes, according to court records.

Other local lawyers have raised questions over Picone’s involvement with the prosecution.

Former District Attorney Harry Damkar, now a private defense lawyer, said he couldn’t recall knowing of a district attorney’s own lawyer working as a prosecutor.

Such an arrangement, Damkar said, “could create the appearance of a conflict, if not a conflict.” Damkar pointed out that if Picone had local clients involved in court action, it could potentially present a problem.

Asked whether he’s Sarsfield’s personal lawyer, Picone said: “No, I don’t think that’s accurate. I represent the county in some civil actions.”

“I never really had a formal relationship with him,” the lawyer said.

Sarsfield also said Picone is not his personal attorney. And they both said Picone represented the district attorney on only one personal matter, in which Sarsfield acknowledged hiring Picone at his own expense.

That involved Picone sending a letter to the Free Lance in October advising that Sarsfield was considering legal action against the newspaper for publishing “libelous statements” in a Citizens Voice column, according to the letter. In it, Picone wrote, “I represent John Sarsfield.”

“That was a one-time, one-project deal,” Sarsfield said. He has since decided he would not pursue legal action against the Free Lance, he said.

Asked whether he would commission Picone’s services if needed in the future, Sarsfield responded, “He’s a great lawyer.” But he also said he would go to other lawyers – for specific matters – who have other specialties.

Sarsfield went on, mentioning Picone’s expertise as an “intellectual property” attorney, one who largely deals with complex licensing issues, and said, “If I had a patent thing, yeah (I would hire him).”

Sarsfield said he retained Picone for the Citizens Voice issue because the lawyer had previously handled a local libel suit while representing The Pinnacle newspaper.

Picone is still the counsel for The Pinnacle. Its publisher, Tracie Cone, was not available for comment Wednesday and referred comments to Picone. He said that position, coinciding with his prosecution work, also does not represent a conflict.

Picone was commissioned as a local prosecutor, Sarsfield said, because Picone’s firm takes part in a program with the local District Attorney’s Office.

It involves private lawyers offering prosecution services at no charge – referred to as pro bono work in law. Sarsfield called it a “community service requirement” – most law firms, he said, mandate some level of voluntary work.

“Approximately” eight to 10 outside lawyers have prosecuted through the program, according to Chief Deputy District Attorney Candice Hooper.

“The county has retained a corporation (Fish and Richardson),” Sarsfield said. “The county has not retained John Picone.”

But Sarsfield acknowledged personally appointing Picone to that particular criminal case – the one involving the tax fraud allegations.

“That case is so complex that I thought it was a perfect match-up,” Sarsfield said.

Picone, however, acknowledged having no prior experience on the prosecution side and no expertise with tax law. He also said he doesn’t generally handle criminal cases.

He pointed out, though, that his firm’s appointed prosecutors have won all their assigned cases in San Benito County over the past year. That could not be confirmed Wednesday because the Superior Court was closed due to Cesar Chavez Day.

Fish and Richardson, according to Sarsfield, maintains a strict stipulation for its prosecutors in San Benito County: that its lawyers don’t concurrently defend clients in local criminal cases.

Picone said if a local client would get involved in court action – and he was assigned as a prosecutor – then he would recuse himself.

Sarsfield acknowledged Picone has previously defended criminal cases in San Benito County. And aside from the active civil case Picone is handling for the county, Picone also represented Sarsfield’s office late last year in another civil case alleging corruption in county government.

Damkar’s 23-year tenure as district attorney – which ended when Sarsfield succeeded him in January 2003 – included two types of outside prosecutors’ involvement, Damkar said.

He commissioned prosecutors provided by the California District Attorneys Association – mostly for environmental cases – which came at no charge. And he assigned recent law school graduates as interns as well – they were also unpaid.

Defense attorney Arthur Cantu, who lost the district attorney race to Sarsfield, expressed discontent with Picone’s prosecution assignment. He said he was present at Picone’s most recent court appearance as a prosecutor March 25.

“I was taken aback when I saw him stand as a district attorney deputy,” said Cantu, who has also publicly criticized previous decisions by Sarsfield. “That’s analogous to the police chief bringing in his cousin, handing him a gun and badge and having him start patrolling the streets of Hollister.”

Greg LaForge, the public defender representing the resident charged with tax fraud, declined to comment because that case is pending.

Meanwhile, Sarsfield and Picone insist there’s no issue. Sarsfield heralded Fish and Richardson and said he wants to expand the program to include other firms.

“We have some of the best lawyers in California,” he said. “And we’re lucky to have them.”

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A staff member wrote, edited or posted this article, which may include information provided by one or more third parties.


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