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June 28, 2022

Supervisor investigation in full swing

The San Benito County criminal grand jury will convene in early
June to consider pressing felony charges related to the District 5
supervisor’s race, and the District Attorney’s Office has begun
subpoenaing about 30 witnesses to testify in the proceedings.
The San Benito County criminal grand jury will convene in early June to consider pressing felony charges related to the District 5 supervisor’s race, and the District Attorney’s Office has begun subpoenaing about 30 witnesses to testify in the proceedings.

Because of the rules governing criminal grand juries, the investigation into the county supervisors race conducted by Santa Cruz inspector Aaron Tripp turned up evidence that suggests a potential for felony prosecution.

Tripp had been probing allegations brought forth in a civil lawsuit that supervisor-elect Jaime De La Cruz campaigned illegally – and that his 10-vote victory should be nullified because of 13 questioned ballots. The Board of Supervisors commissioned the investigation in mid-March.

If De La Cruz comes under the grand jury’s scrutiny and is eventually convicted of a felony charge, by law he would automatically lose his seat on the board.

De La Cruz said he’s not concerned about the upcoming proceedings.

“I’m going to let the law go into effect,” he said. “The people elected me to do a job.”

Criminal grand juries can convene only to consider cases with a potential for felony indictments, according to District Attorney John Sarsfield. If it convenes, however, members can determine misdemeanor charges are more appropriate.

It is unclear what potential charge or charges will be considered – or against whom – because Sarsfield declined to comment on specifics of the case. If a grand jury does press charges, it serves as a standard preliminary hearing and would be followed by a trial.

The grand jury will convene from June 1–3 at the Veterans Memorial Building, Sarsfield said. He confirmed that his office subpoenaed approximately 30 witnesses, including everyone involved in the election.

De La Cruz received a subpoena Friday, he said. And his campaign advisor, Ignacio Velazquez, expected to receive a subpoena when he returned to town today.

Velazquez welcomed the potential prosecution surrounding the election race, saying, “I’d be happy to talk to the grand jury.” And Velazquez criticized Sarsfield for not taking the case himself.

“I think John should have had more courage,” he said.

Although criminal grand juries often meet behind closed doors, Sarsfield has not decided whether that will happen in the election case. He is researching whether it can be legally opened to the public in this instance, he said.

“If it could be done in the open, I wouldn’t object,” he said. “I’m just not sure it can be done legally.”

Sarsfield formed the local criminal grand jury in February. It is a means of prosecution previously untapped in San Benito County, he said.

Sarsfield likes the system, he said, because it allows the general public to carry out indictments – as opposed to himself or a judge. They are especially useful in cases that are politically heated, Sarsfield said, or those that demand secrecy.

“I like the idea of community members, as represented by the grand jury, making decisions of that magnitude,” Sarsfield said.

For the process to get past the grand jury, 12 of the 19 members must vote “that there is sufficient evidence to justify a trial,” Sarsfield said.

The criminal grand jury’s potential prosecution in the case compounds the existing civil court contest to De La Cruz’s March 2 victory over incumbent Bob Cruz. Legally, the two matters must be handled separately, according to Sarsfield.

Cruz did not return a phone call, though he has previously declined to comment on the matter. His lawyer, Harry Damkar, declined to comment other than to say: “The preliminary indication from witnesses that we have spoken with in our civil suit have indicated there could be criminal conduct.”

De La Cruz was sued by Cruz’s wife, Marian, most recently on April 11 after her initial lawsuit had to be revised because state law mandates board certification before a contest. The board certified the election April 6, but with a notation about the allegations being investigated.

Her suit includes allegations that eight ballots were improperly returned to the Elections Office; only household or family members are allowed to return absent voters’ ballots. And another five ballots were questioned, including an allegation that De La Cruz mailed two ballots, a practice that is illegal.

Regarding Tripp’s investigation, Hodges said the inspector requested a list of residents who voted by absentee ballots, along with documents relating to in-lieu of signatures.

Candidates obtain the signatures early in races as a way to lower filing fee costs; the fees are lowered proportionally – 25 cents a piece – with the number of signatures obtained.

De La Cruz said Tripp focused on the subject of in-lieu of signatures during a two-hour interview between the two. De La Cruz denied any wrongdoing relating to the forms.

“We spent one hour talking about three signatures on the in lieu of form,” he said.

Sarsfield has not publicly released Tripp’s report because it is “still under review,” he said. But he expects to do so in about two weeks.

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