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Fresno Democrats want Republican top prosecutor investigated


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Fresno County Democrats, labor and nonprofit leaders joined forces Wednesday to call on California Attorney General Rob Bonta to investigate Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp and her use of her office’s Public Integrity Unit, alleging the Republican and Fresno County’s top law enforcement officer “weaponizes” her office against elected Democrats of color.

The group held a news conference Wednesday morning in front of the Fresno County M Street Courthouse where Fresno City Council President Nelson Esparza, a Democrat, appeared in court the day before for a hearing related to his felony attempted extortion charge.

The group included staff and officers from the Fresno County Democratic Party, Fresno County Young Democrats, Central Labor Council and Fresno Building Healthy Communities. They called on Democrats and residents alike to file complaints with the attorney general’s office regarding Smittcamp’s actions.

“It’s really time that we hold, ultimately, Lisa Smittcamp, accountable for using her office to advance her own personal and political agenda,” said Sandra Celedon, president and CEO of Fresno Building Healthy Communities.

Bonta’s press office on Wednesday said the office is aware of the request and will review it once received.

Bonta is scheduled to attend a Fresno County Young Democrats fundraiser Friday hosted by Democrat Deputy District Attorney Andrew Janz, who previously ran for Congress and mayor.

The group at the news conference compared incidents in which Smittcamp charged Democrats with crimes but not Republicans.

“Since establishing the Public Integrity Unit, Lisa Smittcamp has weaponized the unit to open up bogus investigations in order to put out statements that would have the public believe those being investigated are already presumed guilty before their trial begins,” said Andy Hansen-Smith, the office manager and former chair of the Fresno County Democrats. “She continuously fails to bring charges against those she investigates and fails to practice any self-control when releasing statements to the media. … Meanwhile, Lisa Smittcamp has failed to charge Republicans.…”

Hansen-Smith pointed out that Smittcamp’s office brought charges against Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula, D-Fresno, who later was acquitted in a misdemeanor child abuse case. She also charged Esparza with felony attempted extortion; investigated but didn’t charge Fresno City Councilmember Esmeralda Soria on Brown Act violation allegations; and investigated Fresno City Councilmember Miguel Arias on allegations he didn’t live in the district he represents.

Smittcamp, however, did not charge Fresno Unified Trustee Terry Slatic after an altercation with a student on a school campus. Slatic currently is registered as Independent but previously was registered as a Republican. Smittcamp also did not charge Sanger Mayor Eli Ontiveros after he was booked into Fresno County Jail on suspicion of domestic violence.

Earlier this month, the chair of the Democratic Party, Ruben Zarate, submitted a complaint to the Public Integrity Unit accusing Councilmember Mike Karbassi of violating the Brown Act. Smittcamp’s office told The Bee it received the complaint and is evaluating it. While Karbassi is a registered Democrat, he often votes against the Fresno City Council’s Democratic majority and with the lone Republican on the city council.

Dillon Savory, of the Central Labor Council, called on Smittcamp to welcome an investigation by the attorney general.

“Lisa, I can’t say if you’re completely corrupt, but clearly questions are being raised about your office,” Savory said. “Just like you’re falsely investigating other things, you deserve to be investigated by the Attorney General. So if you’re open and clear and you have nothing to hide, I think you should welcome the investigation. You should let the people see behind the curtain and prove to everybody that you have real merit in your office and that you have real integrity left in your soul.”

When Smittcamp first ran for office, Savory said she touted her father’s legacy as a union president. As her time in office progressed, she became the most powerful of the Smittcamps, a wealthy local family with large agricultural interests, by using her office and married last name, Savory said. Members of the Smittcamp family regularly donate to Republican candidates and causes.

It’s not the first time Smittcamp’s ethics and politics have been questioned.

Local attorney Kevin Little earlier this year called on Bonta to investigate Smittcamp for how she’s handled questions and investigations related to Granite Park. Arias in March also accused Smittcamp from the dais of prosecuting Democrats in the court of public opinion.

During Wednesday’s news conference, Brian Beltran, president of Fresno County Young Democrats, said young people don’t feel safe while Smittcamp is in office because of her failure to charge people such as Slatic. That inaction emboldens others to harm young people, Beltran said, pointing to the incident in which a Fresno elementary school principal struck a special needs student. The principal is charged with one misdemeanor count of child abuse.

Celedon said it’s important for all Fresno County residents to have the same level of justice and safety available to them as anyone that has political power or has some type of political connection. That’s not happening in Smittcamp’s office, she said. Smittcamp disproportionately investigates people of color, registered Democrats and people she doesn’t like, Celedon said.

“In fact, what we’ve seen is that the Public Integrity Unit actually has no integrity. It lacks the integrity necessary to actually investigate cases,” Celedon said.

Smittcamp’s office responded late Wednesday afternoon. Read her full statement here.

This story was originally published September 21, 2022 12:35 PM.

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Brianna Vaccari covers Fresno City Hall for The Bee, where she works to hold public officials accountable and shine a light on issues that deeply affect residents’ lives. She previously worked for The Bee’s sister paper, the Merced Sun-Star, and earned her bachelor’s degree from Fresno State.





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