Tulare County court clerk says judge wanted secret romance

The court clerk for a Tulare County judge testified at his judicial ethics trial Wednesday that he showered her with cash and gifts despite her protests, sent text messages excessively and sought a secret romance.

Court clerk Priscilla Tovar said the stress of hiding from her husband the attention of Tulare County Superior Court Judge Valeriano Saucedo, 63, was too much to bear, so she told the judge via text message “I can’t handle it anymore” and would tell her husband everything, which prompted the judge to message her that he would resign and commit suicide.

Saucedo has testified he was simply trying to be a mentor for his court clerk and help her with life’s troubles when he gave her about $26,000 in gifts over a four-month period in 2013.

In documents filed against Saucedo two months ago, the Commission on Judicial Performance said his actions constituted willful misconduct in office and brings the judiciary into disrepute.

A panel of three judges from out of the area is hearing the case against Saucedo this week at the Fifth District Court of Appeal in downtown Fresno. If it finds the charges are proven, it will recommend to the commission that Saucedo be removed from office or given a lesser punishment.

Tovar, a court clerk for 10 years, said she did not request money from the judge and told him several times she didn’t want it. He gave her cash for a baseball fundraiser for her son, and cash as a birthday gift for her and for a new cell phone.

But the judge-clerk relationship veered in a strange direction when he showed her an anonymous letter — he testified it arrived at his home — detailing a romance she had with a bailiff in another department several years ago at a time she and her husband were separated before reuniting.

“I was shocked, upset,” she said. “I said I need to tell (court) administration. He said you can’t tell anyone about this.”

The letter was addressed to her husband’s place of employment, and Saucedo told her he would have the letter intercepted by telling the employer the court sent it by mistake, she said.

Later that day, “he said I needed to be honest with him if I wanted him to help me. ... I was crying, he started to cry. ... He gave me a hug and said everything is going to be OK, I just needed to trust him.”

He sent her flowers at work and told her to tell people they were from her husband, she said. Saucedo has testified the flowers were to show whoever sent the anonymous letter that she had a good marriage.

He also sent text messages frequently and she had to ask him several times not to text so often, she said.

He helped her find a mechanic to get her car fixed and paid for it despite her protests, and made her give him her bank account number and put money into the account, and told her to upgrade her wardrobe, he said.

“He wouldn’t take no for an answer,” she said.

Tovar testified he gave her envelopes of cash in her computer keyboard tray. He bought her family and her sister’s family a trip to Disneyland that she was supposed to say was paid for with overtime earnings, she said.

Tovar admitted she never told her husband about the money and gifts.

“I was told not to tell him,” she said. “It was like walking on eggshells. I had to watch everything I said.”

Saucedo found her a car and met her at a dealership, where they had a private conversation, she said.

“He said if my husband didn’t find out and his wife didn’t find out, would you have a romantic relationship with me?” Tovar testified. “I said I’ve never looked at you that way. You are my judge, I’m married. If this is what this is all about, I don’t want it.”

He hugged her and told her the car is hers, she said.

Saucedo denied having a romantic or sexual relationship with his court clerk, and testified he wanted to help her get a reliable car for her self-esteem to improve her career and family life.

Proceedings against Saucedo continue Thursday.