Recently, the Madera County Administrative Officer (CAO) wrote a guest commentary which was published in the Sierra Star entitled, “Grand jury relied on rumor and guesswork.” In this less-than-subtle commentary, the CAO states that “the subcommittee neglected its legal obligation to adopt findings and recommendations which are based on factual and legal information.” He continued by stating, “They subscribed to the theory of a handful of disgruntled individuals and relied on rumor and guesswork as the basis for this report."
In California, the Grand Jury system is unique in that its primary role is to act as a watch dog over local government operations. This involves conducting operational reviews, responding to complaints, and, in rare instances, delivering accusations that may result in the filing of criminal complaints. Grand juries rely on the sworn testimony of witnesses to determine the facts of a matter. Accordingly, grand jury members are bound by an oath to protect the confidentiality of witnesses and their testimony. Confidentiality and secrecy are critical factors so that witnesses need not fear reprisal and they must be guaranteed this level of protection for the system to work.
Each year, grand jury members attend a very intense two-day training session conducted by the statewide Grand Jury Association, where, among other things, they learn to differentiate fact from rumor.
What’s more, there is a methodical approach for fact determination taught in these training sessions. In the matter of the report entitled “Complaint Regarding County Administration and Finance,” a written complaint was received and an investigative committee was formed and chaired by Mr. Dan Hatcher. The six-month investigative process included the summarization of the allegations and the gathering of a paper trail, including emails, letters, audit reports, and board letters.
The investigation also required attendance at Board of Supervisor (BoS) meetings and the review of archived video recordings of prior BoS meetings. However, the most critical element of this investigation was the witness interview sessions.
Witnesses to be interviewed were selected from a large cross-section of people involved with and/or knowledgeable of Madera County government and included elected officials, department heads, employees, and non-employees. Questions were prepared in advance of these interviews and, before each interview session, the witnesses were sworn in and admonished not to discuss the questions or answers with anyone. Upon completion of each interview, committee members finalized their interview notes and filed them with other documentation regarding the matter, whereupon a large file of material in support of the facts was accumulated.
What is a fact? In Grand Jury parlance, a fact may be substantiated by the testimony of a minimum of three witnesses. A fact can be substantiated by a letter or email, an audit report, an instruction in a procedures manual, a contract, or Government Code section. And, a fact may be substantiated by attending public meetings and observing the ensuing discussion pertaining to an issue.
In this investigation, our facts were derived from several sources, including emails, letters, audit reports, board letters, attendance at BoS meetings, and from direct testimony. We did much more than interview “a handful of disgruntled individuals”; in fact, we conducted approximately two dozen interviews with over 15 different people. An overwhelming majority (three quarters) of these witnesses confirmed the facts in one form or another, with differing levels of severity. So, when the CAO said “the Grand Jury relied on rumor and guesswork”, that simply is not true, but it is a good example of “guesswork” on his part.
What is a rumor? A rumor is gossip, guesswork, antidotal information, or possibly misinformation spread by a person with an axe to grind. However, a rumor can be based in fact. Currently, there is a rumor going around that a Madera County department head is questioning employees to determine which of his/her subordinates testified before the Madera County Grand Jury on this matter. But, of course, that is just a rumor!
Now, if said employees were to file a complaint with the Grand Jury alleging that they are being intimidated into divulging something that they were admonished not to reveal, then that might trigger an investigation to include sworn testimony to determine how factual these allegations might be. This is how a Grand Jury distinguishes fact from rumor.
In summary, the CAO is advised to respond to the Grand Jury Report as required by law. He may state his disagreement with the facts, findings, and recommendations; that is his right. But, this year’s grand jury takes great exception to the misinformation he provided the news media with his guest commentary and we hope that it does not have a chilling and demoralizing effect on future Grand Jury witnesses.
Phillip Atkisson, foreman
2012-13 Madera County Grand Jury