Tulare County Civil Grand Jury says it will not consider a complaint against trustee Alberto Aguilar because the allegations are criminal and out of its jurisdiction
TULARE – A local elected official accused of releasing confidential information to the public will not be removed from office. He may however face criminal charges.
Last month, the Tulare County Civil Grand Jury said it will not consider the complaint filed by the Tulare Public Cemetery District against one of its trustees, Alberto Aguilar, for disclosing closed session information to the public because it involves allegations of criminal wrongdoing, according to an Aug. 6 letter obtained by The Sun-Gazette. Civil grand juries in California are charged with investigating allegations of a public official’s “corrupt or willful misconduct in office,” according to the Judicial Council of California, but Tulare County’s grand jury said criminal allegations are out of its jurisdiction. The grand jury can file an “accusation” against an official to remove them from office, which is considered “quasi-criminal” in nature. The Grand Jury declined to answer questions about why it did not consider the issue on the grounds of willful misconduct.
The Grand Jury’s response was discussed at the cemetery board’s Aug. 26 meeting. Board chair Xavier Avila said the board voted Aug. 26 to send the complaint to the Tulare County District Attorney for breaching attorney-client privilege, a misdemeanor, under the agenda item “Continued Discussion and/or Action on Unauthorized Communications by Alberto Aguilar”. The DA’s Office said they had not received a complaint against Aguilar as of press time.
The board voted to censure Aguilar at its July 7 meeting after the cemetery district’s attorney stated Aguilar disclosed information exclusively shared in closed session in a May 22 email to members of the press and public. Deputy County Counsel Aaron Zaheen, who serves as the district’s attorney, called Aguilar’s action a “dereliction of duty” and advised the board to vote for censure to publicly admonish him and protect the district from any liability associated with the disclosure.
Board chair Xavier Avila said each trustee has a duty to protect the district and a trustee making a personal decision to put the board at risk couldn’t be overlooked by the board.
“Personally, I take no pleasure in censuring anybody,” Avila said at the July 7 meeting. “I do it with a heavy and sad heart.”
Aguilar, who did not respond to phone calls after the meeting, said during the meeting he was not guilty of any crime because he disclosed information to expose criminal activity occurring within the district. In his May 22 email, Aguilar said he had requested public records on the double disinterments on March 8 as well as the burial of Dollie Faria, a prominent member of the Tulare area who died in November 2019. While he received information on Silvano Martinez, one of the two disinterments, he had not received any of the information he requested on the Faria burial.
“Whenever a public agency denies public financial information and/or any public records, it’s because they are trying to hide it from the public,” Aguilar wrote.
He alluded to a statement issued in April by former cemetery foreman Brian Viera, who has filed a lawsuit under whistleblower laws, which exposed details about the Faria burial. Viera claims lead foreman David Faria found a full skeleton when he dug the Faria grave, but the district went ahead with the burial anyway. Aguilar said the cemetery district did not get written permission from the family to do a double burial and at the time had yet to notify the family, which would constitute a health and safety code violation punishable by up to one year in county jail.
“When we don’t follow procedures, and have things like double disinterments without proper authorization, or double burials, which are against the law, the public has a right to know,” Aguilar said in his defense at the meeting. “I will continue to expose any crime and illegal activity and or any corruption that occurs at the public cemetery.”
In the May 22 email, Aguilar goes on to site specific details of the burial including a comment that Avila had confirmed the top of the vault where Faria was buried is less than 12 inches from the turf above the ground, when the law requires no less than 18 inches. Aguilar said in the email he was going to provide documentation to the Tulare Police Department to check up on a complaint he filed on May 14 and that he planned on filing another complaint “relative to the matter” on May 24. Aguilar sent the email to several members of the public, including former trustee Viki Gilson, activist Alex Gutierrez, Valley Voice newspaper writer Catherine Doe, and Luis Ojeda with ACLU Northern California.
“I do not want to be part of any coverup or whitewash of criminal activities,” Aguilar said.
Trustee Charlie Ramos said there was no coverup because the district had already filed a “lengthy” police report prior to Aguilar’s claims, something he said Aguilar was aware of. Sgt. Edward Hinojosa, public information officer for TPD, said the district filed a report on April 12 and that it was still being investigated.
Ramos went on to say Aguilar’s email discussed information regarding a settlement which had a non-disclosure agreement he approved and reprimanded Aguilar for circumventing the board when it comes to releasing sensitive or confidential information.
“He decided to take it on himself to write a statement of fact that was released, in closed session, to the public including the press,” Ramos said. “And that cannot be without consequence. Attorney-client privilege is the board’s decision to break, not one person’s decision to break.”