By PAUL J. YOUNG, City News Service—
Exactly three weeks after Riverside County's top prosecutor allegedly pulled down his opponent's campaign signs along an Indio roadway, the city's police chief said Wednesday the investigation remains "active" and asserted that it will not be hurried up to achieve a "political outcome."
"We're going to do this right," Chief Richard Twiss told City News Service. "I am not going to say what the charges are or could be. We're not there yet."
Twiss acknowledged the intense interest in the case, with the June 3 primary now less than three weeks away and the Riverside County Registrar of Voters' Office already collecting mail-in ballots that could determine whether District Attorney Paul Zellerbach keeps his job or is replaced by veteran prosecutor Mike Hestrin.
But the integrity of the investigation will not be compromised to meet the expectations of one side or another, the chief said.
"We are not conducting this investigation to reach a political outcome," Twiss told CNS. "We're going to follow the law and present our case to the (California) Attorney General's Office, when and if it comes time to cross that bridge."
Asked why the inquiry appeared to be dragging, with all of the evidence seemingly in hand, Twiss replied, "I have the utmost confidence that my staff will conduct a complete and comprehensive investigation."
"I realize there are parties who want this done today. But this investigation will run its due course," he said. "Do you have any idea the volume of misdemeanor cases we handle in a year? This is just one case. Yes, it's sensitive. But it's no more important than the others."
Twiss said his investigative team had not encountered any snags or resistance from those sought for questioning. The chief added that he was not feeling any personal pressure to wrap up the investigation.
"It's not my first time in the rodeo," Twiss said.
According to the chief, the police department will "not withhold information" when it comes time to release it, but said much will depend on the California Attorney General's office, with which the department has been coordinating from the start.
"They're the prosecuting agency," Twiss said. "We're working with them."
CNS contacted the AG's office multiple times for comment but had not received a response by late Wednesday.
Twiss reiterated that he will not make a decision on whether to pull his endorsement for Zellerbach until the investigation concludes. The Zellerbach campaign took Twiss' name off the D.A.'s reelection website on its own -- not at his request, the chief said.
The campaign also recently deleted the names of Moreno Valley police Chief Joel Onitveros, San Jacinto police Chief Stephen Mike and Temecula police Chief Jeff Kubel. All three men, who are sheriff's department employees serving under contract in the cities, told CNS they never endorsed Zellerbach in the first place and were prohibited by sheriff's policy from making endorsements in their official capacities.
On the morning of April 23, a law enforcement officer in an unmarked car said he witnessed Zellerbach knocking down a large Hestrin campaign sign at the intersection of Indio Boulevard and Jefferson Street. Security cameras mounted outside an am/pm store at 42-334 Jefferson, just off Interstate 10, allegedly caught Zellerbach uprooting three smaller Hestrin signs that same morning.
Zellerbach called the first incident an "accident" in which he bumped into the Hestrin sign while erecting one of his, and later suggested the witness was a disgruntled investigator from the D.A.'s Indio office trying to smear him. Zellerbach said in the second instance, he received permission from the store owner to pull down the Hestrin signs and put up one of his own, though that has not been confirmed.
On April 25, the D.A. wrote a $203 personal check to the county as reimbursement for using a county-owned Ford Escape SUV to conduct political activity on county time.
Law enforcement sources have told CNS that besides misdemeanor vandalism and theft, Zellerbach could face a felony charge of misappropriation of public funds under Penal Code section 424 -- not only for allegedly conducting political activity on the taxpayers' dime, but also for using a county employee for the same purpose.
Zellerbach was traveling with one of his assistants in the D.A.'s office, Ricardo Rubio, on the day the signs went down.
In a 1978 case, People v. Battin, an Orange County supervisor was convicted of PC 424 for using his county staff to send out political brochures and conduct other campaign activity during working hours. He was sentenced to three years probation.