Genesis execs' new trial set for March

A retrial of two Fresno women accused of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Genesis child-welfare agency will begin in March in Fresno County Superior Court, the trial judge ruled Wednesday.

On trial are Elaine Bernard, chief executive officer of Genesis, and her sister, Carol Dela Torre, the nonprofit's clinical director. A 16-count indictment charges them with theft, tax evasion and filing false state income tax returns between 1996 and 2001.

Their first trial lasted five months before ending in a mistrial in May.

Judge John Vogt's ruling to start jury selection on March 17 brought objections from Bernard's lawyer, Roger Nuttall, who has several trials pending. One of them is the trial of Larissa Schuster, who is accused of killing her husband, Timothy, and putting his body in a barrel of acid in July 2003. Nuttall represents Schuster.

Because of pretrial publicity, Schuster's trial will not be held in Fresno County. Her trial will begin Monday in Los Angeles County.

After the Schuster trial, Nuttall said, he has other cases set for trial. He said the earliest he could proceed on Bernard's behalf is in mid-May.

Nuttall told Vogt that he does not want to withdraw from the case.

Vogt acknowledged Nuttall's busy schedule, but said the Genesis case takes precedence over Nuttall's other cases. The judge, however, told Nuttall that if he is in trial in March, that would be good reason to delay the Genesis trial.

Nuttall, in response, said he plans to file a motion to continue the trial to mid-May or later. He told Vogt that if his motion is denied, he might have to withdraw from the trial, leaving Bernard to find another lawyer. If that happens, it could take Bernard's new lawyer several months to fully learn about the case, because there are 500 boxes of legal documents.

Vogt scheduled a Nov. 19 hearing for Nuttall's motion.

The judge also ruled on another legal matter -- Vogt denied a defense request to learn how much the District Attorney's Office has spent over the past nearly six years to investigate and prosecute the defendants.

Vogt said some of that information -- such as how much prosecutors paid an expert -- will be divulged prior to the person testifying. But much of the other information sought by the defense is not relevant to giving the defendants a fair trial, he said.

Bernard, 47, and Dela Torre, 46, are Fresno State graduates and longtime civic leaders. They are accused of spending Genesis money on vacations and shopping sprees. They could go to prison if convicted and would lose their licenses as social workers.

Court records show Bernard and Dela Torre have repaid Genesis, and that the agency's board of directors supports the women's efforts to prove their innocence.

Bernard has said her legal bill so far is about $300,000, and that her sister also is paying for a lawyer.