Tulare County judge says gifts to clerk could be misconstrued

Tulare County Superior Court Judge Valeriano Saucedo spent a second day Tuesday defending himself against charges of violating judicial ethics that could get him removed from office, acknowledging that giving money and gifts to his married court clerk could have been misconstrued.

The court clerk to whom he gave money and gifts also testified.

A three-judge panel of judges from out of the area appointed by the Commission on Judicial Performance is hearing the case against Saucedo in the Fifth District Court of Appeal courtroom in downtown Fresno.

The commission said the judge wrongly gave her numerous gifts two years ago totaling about $26,000, including cash, a trip to Disneyland and a car.

It also said the judge showed her an anonymous letter addressed to her husband about a romantic relationship she had several years ago with a bailiff in another courtroom and erred by promising to have it intercepted, although the judge said he did not intervene and simply said it to make her feel better.

If the panel finds the charges are proven, it will make a recommendation to the commission about punishment, which could include removal from office.

Saucedo, 63, said he did not have a romantic or sexual relationship with the clerk, and denied seeking an emotional affair.

Saucedo said he was acting as a mentor and trying to help her overcome problems in her life — an old car that was unreliable, for instance — so she could succeed both in her career and family relationships including her marriage.

“I saw someone in need, someone stressed out,” he said. “Given who I am, I couldn’t turn my back on someone who needed help.”

The gifts, including a car, were not to get her to confide in him as alleged by the commission, but “some of it could be misconstrued,” Saucedo said.

The mentoring relationship did not develop as he had anticipated and faltered when he learned via text messages with the clerk that she had not told her husband about the money and gifts, Saucedo said.

Judge Becky Lynn Dugan, from Riverside County, asked from the bench whether Saucedo should have told his his fellow judges he was mentoring his clerk.

“In retrospect, yes,” Saucedo said. “At the time, I did not think about it.”

The clerk, Priscilla Tovar, took the stand late in the day Tuesday and answered questions by examiner James Harrington of Sausalito.

She said she has worked as a court clerk for 10 years, is married with four children, including two over age 18, and had been a clerk in Saucedo’s courtroom for about three years.

In July or August 2013, the judge started giving her money even though she didn’t ask for it and tried to refuse it — $50 for a baseball ring for her son, $50 as a birthday gift.

In September, he gave her either $50 or $100 to help buy a new cellphone to replace one that had a cracked screen, she said. That same month, he gave her a short ride in a two-seat convertible he had just bought as a fun car to complement his old Volvo.

“He said, “Who knows, maybe one day, you’ll have a car like this,’ ” Tovar testified. “I chuckled — like, ‘yeah right.’ He said, ‘No really, you can.’ ”

Saucedo has a close relationship with his clerks and she also fit that category, she said.

“It was different than the other judges,” Tovar said. “We talk not about just work but about family.”

Her testimony is to continue Wednesday.