San Benito County Bar has ‘no confidence’ in DA

By Jessica Quandt and Erin Musgrave Staff Writers
– In a highly unusual move, the San Benito County Bar
Association overwhelmingly approved a

no confidence

vote in District Attorney John Sarsfield, and plan to ask the
California State Bar and Attorney General to investigate his
By Jessica Quandt and Erin Musgrave Staff Writers

Hollister – In a highly unusual move, the San Benito County Bar Association overwhelmingly approved a “no confidence” vote in District Attorney John Sarsfield, and plan to ask the California State Bar and Attorney General to investigate his conduct. Friday’s vote included an endorsement of the recall effort against Sarsfield, which eked through with only 13 of the 24 members present in favor.

“The association is of the opinion that the district attorney has abused the power of his office and that his conduct constitutes a threat to the public’s ability to exercise their constitutional rights,” bar President Chenoa Summers said. “For these reasons, the association has no confidence in the ability of District Attorney John Sarsfield to do his duties.”

In addition, Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz called for Sarsfield’s resignation Friday because he believes the prosecutor has used his position to instill fear in community members who wish to speak against him.

“He’s persecuting individuals who do not believe in his political views,” De La Cruz said. “So it’s time for us to stand up as a community and say, ‘Enough is enough.'”

A large majority of local bar association members at Friday’s meeting passed the no confidence vote, saying Sarsfield has misused the criminal grand jury and “violated the rules of professional conduct and failed to properly perform his duties,” Summers said. She declined to detail the vote count.

The local bar association, which historically has steered clear of political matters, plans to ask both the State Bar and the Attorney General to conduct an investigation into Sarsfield’s actions. While the no confidence vote speaks to the bar association’s opinion of the district attorney’s performance, it carries no legal weight.

Summers wouldn’t comment on how the bar believes Sarsfield has misused his office at this time. Summers, bar Vice President Paul Breen, and another soon-to-be determined lawyer will make up a committee to outline the association’s opinions in a letter to the state, she said.

Sarsfield did not return phone calls Friday afternoon and did not attend the meeting. Summers said she sent Sarsfield a letter Wednesday inviting him to attend, which he declined due to the short notice and the apparent vagueness of Summer’s letter.

“Your letter is vague in expressing exactly what the purpose of this meeting is, and what the specific concerns you or the association have,” Sarsfield wrote in the letter. “Additionally, as I am sure you are well aware, the county bar association has absolutely no authority or jurisdiction over me, my attorney staff, my office or any other aspect of prosecution functions in San Benito County.”

Sarsfield said he would be more than happy to meet with the bar association and consider their input by appointment, according to the letter.

The single agenda item monopolized the entire two-hour meeting, which drew more than double the usual attendance, Summers said. Of the 35 bar association members, 24 showed up in person and six sent proxy votes because they couldn’t make it for one reason or another, she said. All of the members practice law in San Benito County, however not all of them reside in the county, she said.

“We’ve never had that kind of turn-out before,” Summers said. “It was huge.”

Summers said many lawyers had extremely strong feelings concerning the District Attorney’s office, and all aspects of Friday’s votes were deliberated carefully.

“People talked about it quite thoughtfully,” Summers said. “It was very well thought-out and argued-out. This was not done lightly.”

The main impetus behind the bar association vote is Sarsfield’s recent tendency to send cases to a criminal grand jury, said local lawyers George Barton, Bill Marder and Harry Damkar. Sarsfield has convened several grand juries over the past year. On Wednesday, the grand jury indicted controversial Los Valientes lawyer Mike Pekin, who was arrested and posted bail later that day.

Pekin and his son, lawyer Patrick Pekin, attended the bar association meeting but abstained from the no confidence vote and the decision to send a letter to the state. However, they did vote to endorse the recall – providing the two votes needed to put the 13-11 decision over the top, Summers said.

Summers said the recall endorsement was highly divided because some members felt it was an individual decision, and others are out-of-county residents who would be unable to vote for the recall.

While the vote to endorse the recall effort against Sarsfield barely passed, many of the lawyers present signed the recall petition, said Barton. The recall effort is being spearheaded by The Vault restaurant owner Ignacio Velazquez, who was De La Cruz’s campaign adviser in the District 5 election.

“People are starting to become aware of what we’ve been saying,” Velazquez said. “It was great to see people who understand the law pointing out how much abuse is going on with John Sarsfield and how much damage he’s doing to the community.”

Marder, attorney for two women in Sarsfield’s office who filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against the prosecutor which was recently settled for $35,000, signed the recall petition weeks ago and encouraged others to get involved, he said.

“Hopefully it sends a message to the public to inform them about the misconduct that has occurred,” Marder said.

De La Cruz, who was interviewed before the association’s afternoon meeting Friday, said everything that has occurred since the hotly-contested March election influenced his decision to call for Sarsfield’s resignation. Sarsfield charged De La Cruz with four felony counts of election forgery which were later dropped. De La Cruz eventually pleaded no contest to one misdemeanor charge of obstructing an officer.

“I feel qualified to be saying these things because I’ve felt his wrath and I hope my doing this will keep someone else from having to,” De La Cruz said. “I have the right to express my opinion as a citizen of this community – as a stakeholder.”

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