Posted on Mon, Nov. 20, 2006

Rural battle: Election settles some scores

By Julia Prodis Sulek

Mercury News

In this sprawling Hollister subdivision, with cul-de-sacs, basketball hoops and American flags, where the streets have names like Morningside and Paradise, the poison came in over the back fence.

It was a poison that the Sarsfield family dogs couldn't resist -- sweet-smelling antifreeze mixed with hamburger.

After a panicked call from home, John Sarsfield -- the San Benito County district attorney -- arrived to find his 12-year-old son despondent and his 7-year-old daughter cradling her dying puppy.

Within a couple of days, despite a trip to the vet, Sundance and Whisper, the Brittany spaniel and border collie pup, were dead.

``That's when I realized I was dealing with evil, evil people,'' Sarsfield said. ``I will never forgive them for that, ever.''

Sarsfield couldn't prove who was behind it, but it was easy for him to believe it was someone connected to the secret group of anonymous businessmen who called themselves Los Valientes, ``the brave ones.'' They considered themselves corruption fighters who were exposing allegations of wrongdoing in the courts and in the press. But Sarsfield considered them no more than a ``criminal street gang'' taking down political enemies with smear campaigns and extortion, and installing pro-growth allies.

When he took them on weeks earlier -- investigating two suspected members for election fraud -- he became a target himself.

The events that would unfold over the next two years in this place just 40 miles south of San Jose dramatized the viciousness of small-town politics. But even more significant, as in rural communities across California, the struggle was over growth and identity. The bitter battle in San Benito County was shaping its destiny.

When Sarsfield refused the demand of Los Valientes' lawyer Michael Pekin to drop the fraud investigation, the lawyer exposed a rumor -- in court filings and in the daily Hollister Free Lance -- that Sarsfield was having an affair with a woman in the district attorney's office.

Within weeks, two other women on his staff brought a claim against the county, saying the alleged affair contributed to a hostile workplace, and shortly after that, disappointed voters started a recall campaign against Sarsfield.

Then, his dogs were killed.

``They can do whatever they want to me,'' Sarsfield said, ``but I'm not going to let them succeed, because they're dangerous.''

The clash between Sarsfield and Los Valientes began in late 2003, when the group emerged and urged Sarsfield to prosecute Richard Scagliotti, chairman of the county board of supervisors and a slow-growth advocate, on corruption charges. The group said Scagliotti had pushed through new zoning regulations to favor himself, used his influence to have one of his properties rezoned for a windfall profit and awarded a county contract to a business associate.

Sarsfield determined that the allegations were baseless and decided not to prosecute Scagliotti, setting the stage for a fight with Los Valientes that grew steadily nastier.

While the affair allegations in May 2004 helped fuel the recall against Sarsfield, the poisoned dogs later helped it fizzle. People started pointing fingers -- at men they suspected were members of Los Valientes.

``Everywhere they went people said, `You're dog killers.' Some people would come around and lump me in and say, `you people,' '' said Ignacio Velázquez, a local businessman Sarsfield believed was a Los Valientes member and whom he was investigating on suspicion of election fraud along with Supervisor Jaime De La Cruz.

Velázquez denied having anything to do with poisoning dogs, as did the other men eventually accused of being associated with Los Valientes. Velázquez even suggested Sarsfield and the Pinnacle weekly newspaper were spinning the tragedy to ``get all the heat off him.''

``It worked for a while,'' Velázquez said, ``so the recall failed, basically.''

`Threat to democracy'
• You are! No, you are! Am not! Are too!

Sarsfield believed the affair allegation amounted to blackmail, but didn't pursue charges because he was the victim, he said. But by the end of 2004, Los Valientes lawyer Pekin, in Sarsfield's estimation, had committed extortion against someone else -- and this time Sarsfield took action.

According to a letter Sarsfield received from county-hired lawyer Nancy Miller, Pekin had threatened to follow a ``scorched-earth'' plan if she didn't agree to several demands regarding his lawsuit against the county, including postponing depositions and the trial date. If Pekin didn't get his way, he would tell the newspapers about allegations against county planning director Rob Mendiola and Supervisor Ruth Kessler of ``misconduct, conspiracy and favoritism.''

``I won't let an extortion ring run the county government,'' Sarsfield said. ``They're a threat to democracy, and I really believe that.''

So Sarsfield set out, as he saw it, to fight for clean politics and for the rights of eight people whose reputations were sullied by Los Valientes. He filed a civil rights lawsuit against Pekin and Los Valientes, pursued a grand jury criminal indictment against Pekin and charged Pekin's legal assistant with practicing law without a license.

Los Valientes' actions are ``not the mere exercise of free speech, but clearly constitute threats, intimidation and extortion,'' Sarsfield wrote in the civil rights lawsuit he filed in December 2004.

They are ``motivated by malice,'' Sarsfield's lawsuit said, ``and have brought said sham proceeding solely to disrupt the orderly operation of the county of San Benito government and to punish those who are politically opposed to the values and beliefs of Los Valientes.''

On Sarsfield's list of victims were Scagliotti and Mendiola. It also named Pinnacle publisher Tracie Cone, after an unfounded Los Valientes rumor spread that she had accepted a $25,000 cash bribe from Scagliotti to support his slow-growth agenda.

In February 2005, the grand jury indicted Los Valientes' lawyer Pekin on five felony charges, including filing false evidence against Mendiola and encouraging perjury from one of Mendiola's employees.

But to Pekin, it was Sarsfield who was a threat to democracy, a ``puppet'' to Scagliotti and Mendiola. Pekin's clients were upstanding citizens, he said, who believed public officials were corrupt and who had a right to air those allegations.

``As long as they believe they're fighting corruption,'' Pekin said, ``even if they're wrong, they have a right to do that.''

They also believed they had a right to stay anonymous. The name Los Valientes appeared on the first legal intervention Pekin filed, but as he pursued subsequent cases against Scagliotti and the county, he would change the name of the plaintiff a number of times, from Los Valientes, to bail bondsman Juan Monteon, then finally to his own son, Patrick. The corruption allegations against Scagliotti also evolved, but Pekin remained determined that the county and Scagliotti should pay damages for Scagliotti's alleged misdeeds.

Case crumbles
• Charges are dropped; Sarsfield weakened

Pekin believed Sarsfield's legal maneuvering amounted to prosecutorial abuse and ultimately would show he was out of line.

After all, some of Sarsfield's attempts were already unraveling.

First, Sarsfield decided not to pursue the election fraud charges against Velázquez, after learning that -- although illegal -- it was not uncommon to hand-deliver ballots in San Benito County and that an elections official had accepted them.

He then dropped all but one charge against De La Cruz, who pleaded no contest to obstructing a police officer for saying, ``I know where you live'' to the investigator. After an apology, 40 hours of community service and reimbursement of the cost of the investigation, the misdemeanor was dismissed a year later.

After Sarsfield won the grand jury indictment against Pekin in February 2005, the county bar association -- made up mostly of defense lawyers -- voted ``no confidence'' in Sarsfield.

A few months later, in the biggest legal blow to Sarsfield in the case, a visiting judge from Monterey County dismissed the entire indictment. The judge offered no explanation. An appeal is pending.

Another out-of-town judge in August 2005 found Sarsfield's charge against Pekin's assistant ``extremely weak'' and went so far as to find that ``the prosecution of her is an attempt to stifle'' the allegations against Scagliotti. Sarsfield ended up dropping that charge, too.

But Sarsfield was undeterred. He hoped his pending civil rights lawsuit against Pekin and Los Valientes would be bolstered by a favorable ruling in a defamation lawsuit brought by maligned planning director Mendiola against Los Valientes. Mendiola had been fired ``without cause'' in April by the board of supervisors, even though the board's independent investigation had cleared him.

``I'm doing the right thing,'' Sarsfield said. ``I know I am.''

Outside assistance
• DA sticks to his guns, pursues Los Valientes

Sarsfield vowed to unmask Los Valientes. He was sure that once the names of the members were revealed, their motivations would become clear, their credibility would plummet and he would be redeemed.

``If they have nothing to hide, they'll come forward. But they won't. We'll have to bring them in kicking and screaming,'' Sarsfield told the Mercury News later.

Sarsfield hired San Jose lawyer Nancy Battel in May 2005 to help determine how to compel the identification of Los Valientes members.

``Do I need to worry about myself -- physically?'' Battel remembers asking Sarsfield.

``Nancy, how do I put this?'' he said. ``I'm the one they really want to get at.''

She subpoenaed Dave Henderson, the private investigator Los Valientes had hired to substantiate corruption allegations against Scagliotti and others.

In his deposition, Henderson said he met numerous times with men who considered themselves ``concerned businessmen'' at the Vault restaurant downtown, including the restaurant's owner, Ignacio Velázquez. Henderson said he also met them at the San Benito Rockery, where he said the owner, Dave Grimsley, handed him $1,500 cash -- an allegation Grimsley subsequently denied.

Henderson also met with Richard Place, a former county supervisor turned developer consultant and an old rival of Scagliotti.

By February of this year, Sarsfield had a list of five local businessmen, plus Supervisor De La Cruz, he believed were members of Los Valientes, all of whom had a financial stake in the growth of the county. He believed there were more people in the group, but this was a start. He could now subpoena them, and prove through their sworn depositions, that they were behind Los Valientes. Ultimately, he believed, they would repay the county and the victims for the trouble they caused.

`No confidence'
• Supervisors restrict Sarsfield's budget

As soon as Kate Woods, the Pinnacle reporter covering the story, got the list of alleged members Sarsfield had filed in court and published her story, Place stormed into the executive offices, denied he was a Los Valientes member and demanded a correction. Place had served on the editorial board of the local daily, the Free Lance, whose parent company had recently bought the Pinnacle.

Tracie Cone had long since left as publisher. The paper published a retraction and yanked Woods off the story.

``It's like you're covering Watergate and you're being told you can't write one more word just as `Deep Throat' is babbling in the underground garage,'' said Woods, who had written 83 stories about Los Valientes. ``That's how I felt.''

The new publisher not only took Woods off the county beat, but also stripped her of a weekly column that lampooned local political figures. The column made her appear biased, the publisher said. He reassigned her to the Gilroy City Council beat.

Everyone else on Sarsfield's list also denied they were members of Los Valientes.

``Whoever they are, I want to personally congratulate them and shake their hand,'' Supervisor De La Cruz told the Mercury News. ``It's a joke what Sarsfield's doing.''

Grimsley said of Sarsfield: ``My take is, I don't even know who they are and Johnny-boy made them up.''

Just uncovering the list of alleged Los Valientes members should have been a triumph.

But with the list in hand, Sarsfield in March asked the board of supervisors for an extra $300,000 -- about one-third of his annual budget -- to cover general costs and keep pursuing the secret group. The board, which included Supervisor De La Cruz, agreed to pay general costs, but not the extra needed to pursue Los Valientes.

And they went a step further. They voted ``no confidence,'' 4-1, in Sarsfield.

``He's spent $1 million of taxpayers' money chasing a shadow that doesn't exist,'' De La Cruz told reporters at the time, an amount Sarsfield said was greatly exaggerated.

While some still admired his determination to fight despite his legal defeats, his popularity with voters was plummeting.

Many who wrote letters to the editors of the local papers believed Sarsfield's judgment had become clouded by a desire for vengeance. They were sick of the headlines, the posturing, the rhetoric. They found it embarrassing. Sarsfield should be prosecuting gang members and drug dealers, they said, not wasting his time on this.

Sarsfield's office was picketed, with people waving posters that said, ``DA for Sale.''

The Hollister Free Lance, which had once praised him as having a bright future as district attorney, called Sarsfield ``out of control'' and his case against Los Valientes a ``quixotic pursuit.''

``It's not a personal vendetta,'' Sarsfield told the Mercury News. ``This is about justice. Los Valientes -- they'll pay for what they've done.''

By summer, Sarsfield's dogs were dead, his blood pressure dangerously high, and his marriage was broken. His wife, who had endured the affair allegations, had often been at odds with her husband, according to her father, Gordon Abbott of San Jose.

``She thought he was making political mistakes all over the place because he wasn't bending,'' Abbott told the Mercury News. ``In fairness to him, he didn't bend.''

Sarsfield moved out of the corner house he had shared with his young family, the house where he had hoped to build his future.

Nonetheless, he was still determined -- determined enough to run for re-election. He would face the same two people he had overwhelmingly defeated four years earlier, his deputy, Candice Hooper, who told voters she would turn over the Los Valientes case to the county counsel, and local defense lawyer Art Cantu, who said he wouldn't pursue the case, either.

For a man who believed he was fighting to preserve democracy, who seemed to have the least to gain and the most to lose, Sarsfield found himself alone.

``I keep waiting for the cavalry to come over the hill,'' Sarsfield said. ``But I still don't hear any bugles.''

Back at the ranch
• Ex-publisher decides to run for supervisor

Tracie Cone also had been mulling over her future. After selling the Pinnacle, Cone had retreated to her ranch southeast of town and taken several trips to visit her dying father.

But she felt guilty about what had happened to the paper after she left as publisher. She felt as if she had abandoned her community.

She decided to put herself squarely back in the middle of San Benito County politics, not as a newspaper publisher, but as a candidate for county supervisor.

If she beat incumbent Reb Monaco for the seat that represents the south side of the county, she would share the supervisors' chambers with a reputed member of Los Valientes, which had spread the false rumor that she took a bribe.

She would also regain her voice, to advocate for ``managed growth.''

``If I lose, it validates fast growth -- pave over everything,'' Cone said. ``I don't want them to win. They've been so dirty about the fight.''

Cone and Sarsfield put up their campaign signs next to each other around town. The signs of both were vandalized.

Two alleged members of Los Valientes had also joined the political field. Ignacio Velázquez ran as the lone Republican for the state Assembly seat in the June primary. Richard Place, after being publicly linked to Los Valientes, failed in his attempt to unseat the only remaining slow-growth advocate left on the board of supervisors -- Chairwoman Pat Loe.

Cone had hoped to win outright in June, but instead she faced a runoff Nov. 7 against Monaco, who considers himself a ``smart growth'' advocate.

Sarsfield, though, went down in flames, his record in the job overshadowed by the Los Valientes saga. Having taken office four years earlier with nearly 70 percent of the vote, he drew barely 21 percent in June.

In the upstairs room of Velázquez's the Vault restaurant, where alleged members of Los Valientes had met, a party was in full force on primary night.

``Sarsfield's gone!'' Supervisor De La Cruz shouted. ``Sarsfield's gone and that's all we care about.''

Patrick Pekin, the son of the lawyer representing Los Valientes, chimed in.

``Look what happens when he loses,'' Pekin said. ``He'll start swinging and take everyone down with him.'' Pekin started swinging his arms, mocking Sarsfield. They all laughed.

Cone had invited Sarsfield to her party that night down the street at Johnny's Bar, but Sarsfield didn't show. Instead, even before the polls closed, he drove around town with his daughter, taking down his campaign signs. He knew he didn't stand a chance.

The voters speak
• Sarsfield is trounced; case handed to state

Cone and Sarsfield didn't talk much in the months after his loss. Cone was focusing on her runoff campaign.

When election night rolled around Nov. 7, Sarsfield showed up at Cone's party. Cone gave him a quick hug and turned to watch the vote tally.

At Monaco's party in a banquet hall around the corner, where a mural of bucolic farmlands covered the walls, at least one guest wore a ``Viva Los Valientes'' T-shirt.

By the end of the night, Cone was trailing Monaco by just 39 votes. With votes still being counted this week, Monaco remains ahead.

Velázquez, who hosted his own party at the Vault restaurant, lost his bid for a state Assembly seat to the mayor of Salinas.

Sarsfield had hoped to bring Los Valientes to trial before his term expires in January, but after Pekin argued that Sarsfield could not be impartial, a judge in August recused him from the civil rights case and handed it to the state Attorney General's Office.

``I'm just glad it will be sent to a place that can't be intimidated by the local political power structure,'' Sarsfield said. ``Some things little counties can't do very well, although we do our best to try.''

Pekin is confident that with Sarsfield off the Los Valientes case, the Attorney General's Office will see things his way and dismiss it. In the meantime, Mendiola's defamation lawsuit against Los Valientes was dismissed in July when the judge said Mendiola was a public figure and couldn't prove the attacks were malicious.

And there is still the lawsuit that started all the turmoil in the first place -- the corruption allegations against Scagliotti. The original allegations have dwindled to two, and the Fair Political Practices Commission investigated the claims and last month decided, as Sarsfield did three years ago, to close the case. But Pekin is keeping the lawsuit alive, making new allegations against Scagliotti, who has been out of office for two years.

``The Valientes have been successful,'' Pekin told the Mercury News. ``They were against the planning director; he's gone. They were against the body of the board members who routinely voted with Scagliotti. There's only one left.''

And Sarsfield is gone, too, Pekin said. ``He has only himself to blame for his situation.''

But to Sarsfield, the ruling from the Fair Political Practices Commission validates his fateful decision not to prosecute Scagliotti.

``It's nice to know that somebody else, neutral and detached, saw it the way I did,'' Sarsfield said. ``In other words, I was right.''

Sarsfield is not leaving office quietly. In September, he told the board of supervisors he intends to file a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against San Benito County, stemming from the board's handling of a lawsuit against him from the two women in his office.

Sarsfield hopes to find a job in the Bay Area, maybe in civil rights law. He doesn't want to comment about his wife and children, but his wife's father hopes the couple reconcile.

A ``For Sale'' sign is planted on the front lawn of the two-story house they bought those 14 years ago, when they thought they would be happy here.

Growth debate lives on
• 6,800 homes proposed on open farmland

Along the old-fashioned streets of Hollister's downtown and in the subdivisions outside, across the rolling hills and orchards of San Benito County, most people will be relieved when the Los Valientes saga finally ends.

But the growth debate lives on. On Nov. 7, Hollister voters rejected Measure S, which would have changed the general plan to allow Del Webb to build 4,400 homes on hay fields outside town.

But another developer, DMB from Arizona, has set up an office on Hollister's main street. It's just a block from the Vault, around the corner from the Free Lance, and right next door to the Hard Times Cafe. It's handing out slick brochures, promoting the plan for 6,800 homes on open farmland along Highway 25, the gateway to San Benito County. The development's view of row crops and oak-studded hillsides would be breathtaking -- but for the powerful stench rising from the compost heap just down the road, especially when the wind blows.