The preliminary hearing for the Williams Unified School Board Trustee charged with election fraud and perjury was pushed back last week, as her defense seeks to disqualify prosecutors at the Colusa County District Attorney’s Office and instead have the state Attorney General assume the prosecutorial duties in the case.
Daniel Olmos, the attorney representing Rosa Elia Orozco-Lopez, filed the motion in the Colusa County Superior Court last Wednesday, two days prior to the preliminary hearing. Accompanying the motion to disqualify was a motion for a continuance, which Olmos said would “give the court sufficient time to consider the recusal motion.”
In court on Friday, Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Thompson – who indicated he had not yet had time to review the motion to disqualify – said that while he was reluctant to continue the preliminary hearing for a second time, the defense’s motion to disqualify the District Attorney’s Office raised an issue of “constitutional proportions,” the circumstances of which could potentially call the validity of the preliminary hearing to question. As such, a hearing on the defense’s motion for disqualification was scheduled for July 18. Thompson said that the court would wait to see what happens at that hearing before moving forward with the rescheduling of Orozco-Lopez’s preliminary hearing.
In court on Friday, Olmos indicated he had spoken with the Attorney General’s Office on Thursday, and that they had said they were working on preparing their own response.
The motion to disqualify the District Attorney’s Office was made under California Penal Code Section 1424, on the grounds that “a conflict of interest exists which might prejudice the Office of the District Attorney against the defendant, makes it unlikely the defendant will receive a fair trial, and will impair the prosecutor’s ability to impartially perform his or her prosecutorial functions,” and that “the circumstances of [this] case evidence a reasonable possibility that the District Attorney’s office may not exercise its discretionary function in an even-handed manner.”
In the statement of facts included in the motion, Olmos heavily referenced the report of Steve Hummel, the private investigator hired by the Williams Unified School District. The district hired Hummel after charges were filed against Orozco-Lopez, “to conduct investigations as needed, including alleged ethics and governance violations by a board trustee.”
Ultimately, Olmos alleged that District Attorney Matthew Beauchamp has a conflict of interest that would qualify him for recusal for three reasons, including:
– Beauchamp previously represented Orozco-Lopez’s son, a subpoenaed witness in a public hearing – Olmos wrote that a conflict existed because Beauchamp had previously represented her son “in a felony matter involving a crime of moral turpitude for which he was ultimately sent to prison,” and Beauchamp had subpoenaed him to testify for the prosecution in the case at hand, while “armed with privileged prior communications with his former client” Olmos also noted that Orozco-Lopez was “pointedly and vocally critical of Beauchamp’s (prior) representation of her son.”
– Hummel’s independent investigation revealed that, under the Beauchamp’s interpretations of relevant statutes, the District Attorney’s own conduct likely constitutes a criminal violation of the same statutes Orozco-Lopez is charged with – The defense pointed to the finding in Hummel’s report that Beauchamp’s and Orozco-Lopez’s legal residency situation was nearly identical. Defense attorney Olmos wrote that a conflict under Penal Code Section 1424 exists “whenever the circumstances of a case evidence a reasonable possibility that the District Attorney’s office may not exercise its discretionary function in an even-handed manner.”
– Evidentiary Hearing necessary to determine whether employees of the District Attorney’s Office have additional conflicts of interest – Olmos referenced Hummel’s report again, noting that the independent investigation found “the prosecution of Ms. Orozco-Lopez was initiated by opponents in a political struggle over contentious actions taken by the School Board, and that at least one high-ranking official in the District Attorney’s Office” – Chief Deputy District Attorney Brendan Farrell – “has a spouse who is engaged in that same struggle against Ms. Orozco-Lopez.” Olmos indicated he had made a discovery request seeking additional information regarding immediate family members of employees of the District Attorney’s Office who work in the school district, and said that “Mr. Beauchamp stated that he was ‘unaware of any staff family members that currently work for the Williams Unified School District.” The defense also stated that they had asked for intra-office communications regarding the investigation and prosecution of the case, and requested that those communications be preserved for potential civil litigation, but Beauchmp responded that those communications were privileged. Olmos stated that the defense intends “to move to compel the production of those communications to the Court for in camera review.”
The District Attorney’s office filed a “terse” response to the defense’s motion to disqualify the prosecution, writing that the defendant “fails to show a reasonable possibility” that the District Attorney’s office “may not exercise its discretionary function in an evenhanded manner.”
“In fact, she fails to show, or even allege, any conflict,” the District Attorney’s Office wrote in the response. “The motion is meritless and must be denied.”
The response briefly addressed each of the defense’s reasons for the motion to disqualify. It called the first – the claim that his prior representation of Orozco-Lopez’s son constituted a conflict – a “red herring,” and said that the person in question had been accidentally served in regard to the preliminary hearing.
“Jesse Lynch was accidentally served in regard to the preliminary hearing,” the response reads. “His brother Nathan Lynch was the intended witness. Jesse Lynch’s subpoena has already been recalled. The People do not intend or foresee testimony from Jesse Lynch. This point is irrelevant; no conflict is alleged.”
In regards to the second allegation, the District Attorney’s Office said that the “Defendant asserts a logical fallacy as a legal argument – tu quoque. Defendant asserts that her conduct cannot be prosecuted because she alleges the District Attorney has done the same. This is irrelevant, illogical, and juvenile. No conflict is alleged.” With respect to the third allegation, the District Attorney’s Office described it as a “fishing expedition.”
“Defendant asserts that there may be a conflict somewhere else in the District Attorney’s office,” the response reads. “This is a request for a fishing expedition. Defendant throws in an allegation regarding a ‘high-ranking’ official’s ‘spouse.’ Defendant apparently failed to read her own attachment.”
Specifically, the statement was referring to Hummel’s “declaration in support of motion to disqualify the prosecuting attorney’s” in which he states: “A fact learned after my report was published is that the wife of the Chief Deputy DA, was a teacher in the Williams Unified School District during the 2017-2018 school year, but due to her temporary status was not required to join the union.”
“(The) Defendant fails to show any conflict,” the District Attorney’s office concluded in the response. “Instead, she provides speculation, red herrings, and childish mud-slinging. The motion fails on its face and must be denied.”