Joaquin Arambula did not show up in court Wednesday for his arraignment on misdemeanor child abuse charges.
Instead, the Fresno assemblyman had an attorney enter a not guilty plea on his behalf.
Twenty-four hours earlier, however, Arambula lobbed some charges of his own. Only his took the form of vague accusations that the 41-year-old politician should’ve kept to himself.
“The allegation that I may have harmed one of my daughters is false and unthinkable,” Arambula said in a statement made through his attorney, Margarita Martinez-Baly.
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So far, nothing out of the ordinary. Just a person accused of a crime proclaiming his innocence. But then comes this:
“While politics may have influenced the decision to file, we are confident that our judicial system will find this allegation to be false.”
By permitting him to cast aspersions on the Fresno County District Attorney’s office, Arambula’s legal team made a serious error in judgment. Why? Because loose assertions of this sort are irresponsible and reckless.
If Arambula has proof, or at least strong evidence, that Fresno County DA Lisa Smittcamp is pressing charges mainly because she’s a Republican and he’s a Democrat, then he should lay it all out.
If not, then hush up. The blurry blame game is never a good look, especially for a public official.
Now, it’s fair to question why Fresno police Chief Jerry Dyer is so willing to share a key detail of the case that wasn’t made public to multiple media outlets. That puzzles me, too. Except Dyer doesn’t get to file charges. That’s the DA’s job.
Smittcamp’s decision to charge Arambula with one misdemeanor count of “cruelty to a child by inflicting unjustifiable physical pain or mental suffering” on the day before his scheduled arraignment came as a surprise.
After writing a month ago that Arambula has been left twisting in the wind for too long, I heard from several well-connected sources in the Fresno legal community who assured me the case would be dropped.
That obviously didn’t happen, which should lead reasonable minds to conclude the DA’s office must have what it considers strong evidence that this was more than a simple spanking of Arambula’s 7-year-old daughter last December.
By filing charges, Smittcamp leaves herself open to speculation about her motives. If evidence comes to light that the DA’s office ignores other, more brazen examples of child abuse in our community to go after someone simply because he’s a Democratic lawmaker, then perhaps I’ll change my tune.
Arambula has already taken a voluntary leave of absence from the Assembly. If convicted, he’ll almost assuredly have to resign leaving his political future in doubt.
But the stakes are high for Smittcamp, too – nothing short of her integrity as well as the integrity of the entire DA’s office. If Smittcamp is found to be corrupt, (i.e. little more than a tool of local Republicans), public trust in her will evaporate faster than a puddle on a 100-degree afternoon.
Which helps explain why Assistant District Attorney Steve Wright, one of the county’s highest-ranking prosecutors, was assigned to handle a misdemeanor arraignment in what is typically a traffic court.
And why the Fresno County DA’s office (shortly after asserting “There will be no further comment on this case pending the outcome of the trial”) quickly refuted Arambula’s allegation.
“Any claim that the decision to file charges is politically motivated is absolutely 100 percent not correct,” the statement read. “We base our filing decisions on the law and evidence collected during the investigation.”
There are murmurs that Smittcamp herself has political aspirations and that forcing out Arambula would clear a path for her next political move.
Except that ignores certain other realities. Namely, that the 31st District tilts heavily Democratic. More than 47 percent of registered voters in the 31st are Democrats compared to 27 percent Republican.
Arambula is only the latest in the long line of Democrats to fill that seat in Sacramento. The list of names includes Henry T. Perea, Juan Arambula (Joaquin’s father), Sarah Reyes and Cruz Bustamante.
Since the 31st was created, no Republican has ever served the citizens of south Fresno and western Fresno County in the Assembly. None of the election results have been within 15 percentage points.
In addition, Joaquin Arambula received an 82 on the California District Attorney Association’s legislative scorecard for 2018, ranking him in the top 10 among Assembly Democrats.
So if Arambula is forced to resign, another Democrat would assuredly take his place – and one who may not be as favorable to law enforcement. I don’t see a net gain for Republicans. Unless their goal is to torpedo the political career of an effective policy maker who has shown himself capable of garnering support from both sides of the aisle.
That sound like a stretch, which makes it hard for me to accept Arambula is being charged for any reason besides the existence of evidence he broke the law.
Will this matter go to trial? I doubt it. But that may be the only way we’ll get the truth.