Tulare Cemetery board censures trustee

Cemetery’s attorney says Alberto Aguilar sent an email disclosing privileged information shared in closed session to the public, press; trustee faces possible removal from office by Tulare County grand jury

TULARE – A Tulare Public Cemetery District official has been censured by his fellow trustees and could be removed from office for disclosing privileged information to the public.

During its July 7 meeting, the Tulare Cemetery District board voted 4-0 to censure trustee Alberto Aguilar for breaching attorney-client privilege, a misdemeanor, and to send the charges to the Tulare County grand jury, which has the power to remove him from office. Aguilar recused himself from the vote on advice from legal counsel. Shortly after opening the meeting, the board went into closed session to discuss the possible censure of Aguilar as well as two claims filed against the district and two potential lawsuits. The board emerged two hours later to publicly vote on the censure.

Deputy county counsel Aaron Zaheen, contracted as the attorney for the cemetery district, described Aguilar’s actions as a dereliction of duty saying the trustee sent a May 22 email to members of the press and public which included items of information only ever discussed by the board in closed session.

“Any breach of this privilege is a misdemeanor under the government code as a dereliction of duty by a public official and for that reason this item is being brought forward,” Zaheen said.

Zaheen went on to say the vote to censure was an important step by the board to disavow Aguilar’s actions and publicly admonish him to 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. “I do it with a heavy and sad heart.”

Yolanda Allen, who sits on the district’s audit committee, called for Aguilar’s resignation during public comment following the vote. She said he did not have the right to break the law because he thought someone else had broken the law and he has been unwilling to accept the results of investigations by the Tulare County grand jury, Tulare County District Attorney’s Office, and the Tulare Police Department.

“You have broken the trust of the people and of the position that you were appointed to do and it just continues and continues and is never ending,” Allen said. “I am asking you to resign your position because you have lost every bit of trust ever that was placed in you in this position.”

Tulare Cemetery District Trustee Alberto Aguilar defends his decision to disclose information to the public on July 7 before being censured by the his fellow board members for sending out an email with information from closed session. Photo by Reggie Ellis

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. Sgt. Edward Hinojosa, public information officer for TPD, said the district filed a report on April 12 and that it was still being investigated.

“The police chose whatever they chose to turn it over to the district attorney or not,” Ramos said. “We can’t make them do anything. Mr. Aguilar was also told this.”

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.”

Local activist Alex Gutierrez said it was a “sad day” when the board chooses to censure someone for stating verified facts that there was a double disinterment and a double burial. He said the other board members were complicit in holding onto the former district manager for too long, as her incompetence resulted in violations of state law which wasted taxpayer funds to settle lawsuits with former employees and bereaved families.

“Trustee Aguilar has the courage and backbone to speak on it, and I think in the future he will be shown to have done the right thing,” Gutierrez said. “Here we are today with all of you choosing to censure the one person, the one man, the public has holding the district accountable.”

Ramos said he fully supported the board’s vote to censure Aguilar and to forward the misdemeanor crime onto the grand jury. 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. The grand jury can file an “accusation” against an official to remove them from office, which is considered “quasi-criminal” in nature.

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