Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp took the rare step of publicly discussing an open case on Thursday, saying she felt compelled to speak out against accusations from the attorneys of Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula who claimed that her decision to charge him with misdemeanor child abuse was politically motivated.
“I am a prosecutor, not a politician,” Smittcamp said in an interview with The Bee. “I don’t play politics.”
Smittcamp’s statements come on the heels of Arambula’s arraignment Wednesday on one count of willful cruelty to a child. The assemblyman was arrested on Dec. 10 after police were called to his 7-year-old daughter’s elementary school.
Arambula was arrested, cited and released. He and his wife have said repeatedly that he is innocent. Their children were returned to their custody two days after the arrest. The Fresno Democrat took a leave of absence from the Assembly on Tuesday, shortly after the charge was announced.
His attorneys, Michael Aed and Margarita Martinez-Baly, entered a not guilty plea on his behalf on Wednesday. After the arraignment, they said Arambula will be cleared of any wrongdoing and that the facts will show Smittcamp’s decision to file was politically motivated.
“I have spent 22 years as a prosecutor, with many years focused on protecting women and children,” Smittcamp said Thursday. “For attorneys who’ve worked with me for many years and know me to muddy these waters with politics is shameful.”
She continued: “Anyone who knows me and knows my value system knows that I have no aspirations for any political office outside of serving as the district attorney.”
Smittcamp again stressed that the decision to accuse Arambula was based solely on the facts of the case. She said her office reviewed the information Arambula’s attorneys provided it in the days leading up to Tuesday’s charge, but it did not change the decision to file.
She said unfair connections had been made between her role as district attorney and the political leanings of her father-in-law, longtime Republican donor Bob Smittcamp, by the attorneys and the news media.
“In 1992, I fell in love with my husband (Wawona Packing president Brent Smittcamp),” she said. “Didn’t marry my father-in-law’s political viewpoints. My relationship with my father-in-law is exclusive always from my duties and from the oath I took as DA. His politics are not my politics, and it’s very unfair that he gets dragged into situations that he has nothing to do with.”
Smittcamp said her own political leanings are far more centrist than that of her in-laws.
Her father, Martin Sondergaard, was a Democrat and union leader, Smittcamp said. Her mother, Anne, is “a staunch, card-carrying Democrat.”
The last political endorsement she made was for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Bay Area Democrat.
“I respect both sides of the aisle,” she said.
A good professional relationship
Smittcamp said she had previously enjoyed a good professional relationship with Arambula, whom she noted received an 82 percent on the California District Attorney Association’s legislative scorecard for pro-law enforcement votes. He has called her before from the Assembly floor to ask her opinion before voting, she added.
“I have no political reason to attempt to circumvent his ability to be an assemblyman,” Smittcamp said. “My focus has to be the child, not the child’s father’s job.”
She said her relationship with Arambula was not personal, however, and thus does not meet the standards to recuse her office from prosecution due to a conflict of interest.
The case against Arambula
The district attorney also responded to the assertion made by Martinez-Baly, Arambula’s attorney, that placing the county’s No. 2 prosecutor, Steve Wright, on a misdemeanor case betrayed her political motives.
Smittcamp said, “Arambula’s attorneys have turned this case into a media circus, and I did not feel any of the attorneys on the misdemeanor team should have to be subjected to the pressures of the media while trying this case.”
She said Wright has extensive experience on both the sexual assault and the child abuse units.
“I am trying a case right now,” Smittcamp said. “In this office, we all try cases.”
It is perhaps unusual for one of Smittcamp’s three assistant district attorneys to prosecute a misdemeanor, but Smittcamp said it is also not typical for a misdemeanor defendant to retain two attorneys with their own legal practices. Wright’s appointment levels the legal playing field.
She said Wright will have the discretion to negotiate with Arambula’s attorneys regarding any sort of plea deal or diversion plan, should those options be applicable to this case.
Smittcamp declined to discuss the specifics of her office’s case, instead only repeating Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer’s statements that the injury suffered by Arambula’s daughter was not from a spanking on the buttocks, as the assemblyman and his wife had said in December.
She said that in general, the misdemeanor charge is applied to a variety of situations in which a child suffered physical and mental harm that did not rise to the felony level. Smittcamp has used it in domestic violence cases in which a child witnesses the abuse, or in drunken driving cases in which an impaired driver put a child at risk.
The Fresno County District Attorney’s office has filed the misdemeanor child cruelty charge 384 times against 306 defendants since Jan. 1, 2018. The office filed nearly 21,000 misdemeanor cases in 2018.
When asked why her office filed the case despite Arambula being cleared by the county’s Child Welfare division, Smittcamp said that her office and CPS have different sets of standards and responsibilities when it comes to opening and closing cases.
“Our focus is only on what happened to the victim and if a crime was committed,” Smittcamp said.