Panel: Judge put ethics on the bench

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re-Judge-ValSaucedoA Lindsay judge’s career may be in jeopardy after a special panel ruled he violated judicial ethics and committed the most egregious type of misconduct.

On July 8, a Special Masters panel of three judges appointed by the California Supreme Court submitted its “Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law” regarding allegations against Tulare County Superior Court Judge Valeriano Saucedo of Lindsay. In the 110-page opinion, the three-judge panel ruled Saucedo committed three instances of willful misconduct surrounding his attempt to have a closer relationship with his former Courtroom Clerk Priscilla Tovar. The instances of willful misconduct included: 1.) giving Tovar the extortion accusation letter in the courtroom during a judicial proceeding; 2.) attempting to improperly interfere with a bailiff’s duties; and 3.) falsely reporting Tovar’s overtime work.

The panel of judges also ruled that Judge Saucedo violated canons requiring judges to adhere to “high standards of conduct,” preserve the “integrity” of the judiciary, and “act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity . . . of the judiciary.” He also violated judicial canons by offering legal advice, making a false representation about Tovar’s claimed overtime work, and improperly interfering with an administrative matter to further his own personal agenda.

“We also find Judge Saucedo committed this conduct in bad faith. ‘Bad faith’ for purposes of ‘willful misconduct’ requires a showing of a corrupt purpose (a purpose other than the faithful discharge of judicial duties), or actual knowledge that it is beyond the judge’s powers, or actions taken in conscious disregard for the limits of the judicial authority,” the ruling stated.

Saucedo was charged with willful misconduct by the Commission on Judicial Performance in a Dec. 19 Notice of Formal Proceedings. The charge stemmed from three-month period from mid-September to mid-November 2013 when Tovar claims Saucedo attempted to have an inappropriate relationship with her and harassed her through extensive conversations via text messaging. Saucedo testified he was attempting to mentor Tovar as he had done for many others in the past.

“Mentoring is not accomplished by providing a subordinate with thousands of dollars in gifts, including a BMW car and vacation, or expecting a ‘special’ friendship in exchange,” the panel wrote in its findings.

The conduct began when Saucedo claimed an unsigned, sexually explicit letter arrived by mail at his home, accusing his then courtroom clerk (Tovar) of having an affair with a court bailiff. The next day, the judge informed Tovar of the letter and offered a plan to help. During the next two months, Judge Saucedo sent Tovar about 445 text messages, gave her approximately $26,000 in gifts, including a BMW automobile and a Disneyland trip package for her family, and provided legal advice to her son. The conduct ended when Judge Saucedo accused Tovar of extortion after depositing $8,000 into her bank account.

The Letter and the Law

The typed letter accused Tovar of having an affair with a Bailiff Jeremy Knoy in Department 5 of the Visalia courthouse, whom the now 42-year-old woman admitted to dating during a separation from her husband five or six years earlier. Later in the day, Saucedo asked Tovar to meet him in the law library conference room where Saucedo asked if the accusations in the letter were true, to which she said no.

Instead of reporting the letter to the presiding judge, court administration or criminal authorities, Saucedo kept the letter in his chambers. After the clerk expressed her fear that she, her husband and the bailiff might lose their jobs, Saucedo claimed he called her husband’s employer to intercept the letter and had it destroyed. He also instructed Tovar not to tell anybody about the letter because they had no idea who had written it.

Saucedo repeatedly denied writing the letter in an attempt to get closer to Tovar and a forensic search of his work computer did not reveal any portion of the letter. Yet many of Judge Saucedo’s actions and statements suggest he was the author of the letter. The panel states that if a third party had sent the letter why would they only send one to the Judge and not to Tovar’s husband regarding an affair. And how did Saucedo only know there was one letter?

When asked by an investigator why he did not give Tovar a copy of the letter, Judge Saucedo said, “I didn’t want multiple copies out there. Only one had been sent. And at the time, I just wanted to hold onto it. And she didn’t ask me for a copy.” (RT 215) We conclude he knew only one letter was sent because he sent the only copy to himself.

The panel stated, “we find by clear and convincing evidence that Judge Saucedo wrote and sent himself the Anonymous letter. Judge Saucedo’s refusal to acknowledge this foundational fact and his continuing assertions that he was unaware of the well-known details raised by the letter (such as Tovar’s prior relationship with Knoy and her visible tattoos) create substantial doubt as to the truthfulness of his remaining testimony.”

Working Overtime

On Sept. 20, Saucedo asked Tovar to come into his chambers and close the door so they could discuss what had happened regarding the letter. During the discussion, Tovar testified that she told Saucedo she needed to clock out on her computer to avoid overtime pay. She said Judge Saucedo responded that she should not worry, that he would take care of it. When Tovar returned to her computer, she had an email from her supervisor asking why she was working overtime. Tovar then called Saucedo about the email to which he replied, “Just tell them that we’ve been working on a case.” In his email to the supervisor the following morning, Saucedo even went so far as to report Tovar was going over “orders to the jail ordering prescriptions be issued to inmates who were going to be released pursuant to court order.”

“We have found Judge Saucedo affirmatively misrepresented to court administrators that Tovar was working overtime on September 20, when Judge Saucedo knew that she was not working, and instead was having a discussion with him (at his request) regarding the Anonymous letter,” the ruling stated.

Bailiff Blunder

In mid-October, Tovar received an unpaid, two-day suspension regarding her handling of a criminal minute order two months earlier. The discipline was based on a report submitted by Bailiff Scott Ballantyne. In the report, Ballantyne stated Tovar did not properly reflect that Judge Saucedo had ordered a defendant to be released from custody, and the matter was not corrected until the following day when it was brought to Tovar’s attention while she was sitting at her desk near Judge Saucedo’s chambers.

The next time Ballantyne came into Saucedo’s courtroom, to check court monitors about a possible disturbance near the courtroom, the judge immediately called Ballantyne’s supervisor Sgt. Gordon O’Rafferty to the bench and told him Ballantyne was not permitted to be in his courtroom.

O’Rafferty later told Ballantyne that Saucedo had complained about him eavesdropping on a conversation between the judge and his clerk and documenting it in a report, saying “the judge was upset with [him] and [Judge Saucedo] felt that [Ballantyne] was dishonest, untrustworthy and should lose [his] job” because of the report.

While Ballantyne suffered no discipline for writing the report, the panel found that, “Judge Saucedo’s conduct was committed in bad faith. He allowed a personal relationship to improperly influence a personnel decision and potentially compromise court security. His action also reflected a corrupt purpose—punishing Ballantyne for no valid reason except for his personal favoritism for Tovar—and thus was not part of the faithful discharge of his judicial duties.”

Closing In Extortion

On Nov. 19, during a criminal proceeding, Saucedo handed Tovar a typewritten note in an envelope while she was sitting at her courtroom desk. The note stated:

“Yesterday, November 18, 2013, you threatened to go to HR unless I deposited $8,000.00 into your savings account by Wednesday. The deposit slip for $8,000.00 is enclosed. Please stop. It is done. Enough is enough. It ends today. No more money will be paid out. Confirm through Kim [Werth].”

Attached to the note was a bank deposit slip showing Judge Saucedo had deposited or asked Saucedo for $8,000, but admitted to asking him for the Disneyland expense money he had promised because she could not afford the trip otherwise. Tovar said she regretted taking and keeping the money and she wished she had not done so.

“[i]t was already done and over with. And I thought if I gave him back the $8,000, he was going to say that I was admitting to this, that I was guilty of all of this. I was scared. I didn’t know what to do.”

Judging the Judge

Tovar never returned any of Judge Saucedo’s money or the BMW vehicle. Tovar later filed two administrative claims, one with the Judicial Council and one with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, alleging Judge Saucedo engaged in unlawful sexual harassment. However, Tovar said that other than the hugs, Judge Saucedo’s conduct was not “sexual” in nature.

Ultimately, the panel came to seven conclusions: 1. Judge Saucedo wrote and sent himself the anonymous letter; 2. Judge Saucedo admitted lying or telling others to lie which undermined his current credibility; 3. Judge Saucedo’s testimony and prior statements were at odds with his text messages and notes to Tovar; 4. Judge Saucedo’s testimony was inconsistent with assertions made in documents he signed; 5. “the manner in which Judge Saucedo testified—failing to answer direct questions, providing nonresponsive and sometimes rambling answers, and answering with irrelevant points—created significant doubt as to the truthfulness of his answers.”

The ruling states Tovar’s testimony was not only convincing but was corroborated by numerous documents, including Judge Saucedo’s text messages, emails, and notes, and bank deposit slips and transaction receipts.

“Although the evidence also shows Tovar at times exercised poor judgment in responding to Judge Saucedo’s overtures, her actions do not excuse or explain Judge Saucedo’s behavior. It is Judge Saucedo’s conduct that is at issue here, not Tovar’s.”

With the findings from the panel of Special Masters in-hand, the Commission on Judicial Performance will determine what disciplinary actions to impose on Judge Saucedo. According to the proceedings, Saucedo is facing at least public or private admonishment or censure and possibly removal from the bench. Private admonishment would be confidential from the public. If the charge is unproven, it will be dismissed by the commission.

Known locally as Val, Saucedo has long been a pillar in the Lindsay community. He was a four-term mayor in the 1990s and helped lead the City through a devastating decade that included the closure of two major employers, a crippling environmental lawsuit and the economic erosion of downtown. He was named the Lindsay Chamber of Commerce’s Man of the Year in 1998. Saucedo was Tulare County’s first Hispanic Judge when he was appointed to the bench in 2001. Saucedo was assigned to Department 6 of the Tulare County Superior Court in 2010.

“Upon initially reviewing the letter and the crude language contained in it, we were initially highly skeptical that Judge Saucedo—a highly regarded, dignified, meticulous judge—could have possibly written the letter and then participated in a convoluted plan to persuade his court clerk that she needed his help (financial and otherwise) to solve the problems raised by the letter. But after carefully considering all of the testimony and closely examining the documents, we reach the inescapable conclusion that Judge Saucedo did write the letter and mailed it to himself for this purpose.”

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