Election

August 21, 2014

Egan's campaign ad nearly gets prosecutor kicked off case

Fresno County District Attorney Elizabeth Egan's unsuccessful attack ad against Lisa Sondergaard Smittcamp in the June primary nearly came back to bite her. A judge ruled Thursday that the campaign advertisement created a conflict for Egan's office to prosecute a suspected drunken driver involved in a fatal crash.

But in his final analysis, Superior Court Judge Jon Skiles said the conflict wasn't enough to recuse Egan's office from prosecuting Ricardo Rojas, who has been charged in Superior Court with gross vehicular manslaughter in connection with the death of a Clovis woman last year.

The contentious ad -- which ran on television and was published in mailers -- became a flashpoint in the heated election battle between Egan, who was seeking a fourth term in office, and Smittcamp, who ended up scoring a convincing victory over her former boss in June.

At the center of the ad is the 25-year-old Rojas, who was prosecuted by Smittcamp in 2011 for assaulting his girlfriend. The case ended in a plea deal that Egan contends showed Smittcamp to be irresponsible and soft on crime.

Court records, however, showed that Smittcamp sought a prison sentence for Rojas. Judge Kristi Culver Kapetan sentenced him to time served in jail and felony probation. While on probation, Rojas was involved in a collision at Cedar and Bullard avenues in Fresno that resulted in the death of 39-year-old Jodi Ward.

Rojas has been in jail since the Nov. 3 collision.

On Thursday, Rojas' lawyer, Jack Revvill, sought to have Dennis Verzosa, one of Egan's top prosecutors, replaced by Kathleen McKenna, a prosecutor in the Attorney General's Office.

In his legal arguments, Revvill likened Egan's campaign tactic to that of the infamous Willie Horton 1988 presidential campaign ad by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, who was running against Democratic candidate Gov. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts. In the TV commercial, Horton-- a black man serving a life sentence without parole for murder-- was released as part of a Massachusetts weekend furlough program. While on furlough, Horton committed armed robbery and rape.

"It was totally irresponsible for Egan to talk about a pending case," Revvill said. "She used Rojas as a poster child for the potential perils of a plea bargain."

Though Egan is a "lame duck" (she leaves office in January), she still has power over her deputies, Revvill said.

But Skiles said there was no evidence that Verzosa would be unfair to Rojas: "No one is accusing him of misconduct."

The judge also noted that Verzosa wrote in a sworn declaration that he was neither involved in Egan's campaign nor knew of the Rojas ad until after it became an issue in the campaign.

Skiles said he wasn't asked to rule as to whether Egan had committed an ethical violation by commenting on a pending criminal case. He also said he wasn't asked to rule whether the Rojas ad would be the basis for a change of venue.

But he said "there was no prosecutorial basis" for Egan to release the Rojas ad other than "for the sole benefit to influence voters."

McKenna agreed: "The DA used the case to further her own ends to be re-elected."

Egan could not be reached for comment.

Smittcamp said Thursday that Skiles made the right call.

"What Egan did was atrocious," Smittcamp said. "This is another example of her putting politics before the victims."

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