Beaumont corruption probe prosecutors argue against dropping charges
The final defendant in the Beaumont corruption case “expressly and unmistakably” surrendered his right to a speedy preliminary hearing, and a claim that he was denied a chance to see the evidence against him is “clearly contrived,” prosecutors said Wednesday as they asked a judge to deny his motion for dismissal.
Former Beaumont City Attorney Joseph Sandy Aklufi, who is charged with six counts of embezzlement, claimed in his dismissal motion that he was wrongly denied his right to a preliminary hearing within 60 days of his most recent arraignment. He also said prosecutors were slow to deliver the evidence they had gathered against him, a process known as discovery.
Judge Mac R. Fisher will preside over a Jan. 17 hearing on the motion.
The other six defendants entered pleas in October and December, and five of them agreed to pay a total of $11.1 million in restitution to the Western Riverside Council of Governments. The defendants included the former city manager, planning director, economic development director, finance director, public works director, and police chief.
Most of those defendants had been accused of illegally diverting $43 million in regional transit funds from the joint powers agency, instead using the money for Beaumont-only projects, from which they profited through a company they then owned. Their company had contracted with Beaumont for public works projects and bond management.
Earlier this month, Aklufi, 71, sought to have the case dismissed, saying he was improperly denied requests for a speedy preliminary hearing three times after pleading not guilty in February 2017 to an amended complaint. Instead, the preliminary hearing was eventually set for Feb. 22, 2018 — 384 days after he entered that plea.
In a preliminary hearing, a judge weighs whether the evidence merits sending the defendant to trial.
California appellate courts have ruled that a defendant’s right to a preliminary hearing within at least two months of entering a not-guilty plea is absolute if not waived. That’s regardless of the complexity of the case or whether co-defendants have relinquished the hearing deadline, both elements of the Beaumont case, according to the dismissal motion by defense attorney Stephen Larson.
But prosecutors said Aklufi permanently waived his right to a preliminary hearing within 60 days in the August 2016 arraignment on the first complaint filed in the case.
Aklufi’s motion says he did not waive those rights again when he was re-arraigned on an amended complaint.
Aklufi “appears to be arguing that because the People filed an amended complaint…he was entitled to a new 60-day right. He was not,” Deputy District Attorney Emily R. Hanks wrote. The amended complaint was only to change alleged violation dates for other defendants, and did not involve Aklufi, she said. “Defendant does not cite a single case providing that the 60-day right is reborn” in a case such as his, she argues.
Aklufi’s motion also said prosecutors were slow to provide him with evidence against him, leading him to believe their case was weak.
The original complaint was filed in May 2016, and Aklufi’s dismissal motion said he had yet to see the prosecution’s claimed “hundreds of thousands of pages” of documents for the case, including those that made the district attorney’s case against him.
“Indeed, because of the weakness of the District Attorney’s Office allegations against him, and the utter lack of discovery substantiating those allegations, Aklufi wanted to exercise his right … to a preliminary hearing at the earliest available opportunity,” Larson wrote.
Prosecutors said the accusation is false.
Their opposition motion said the case documents were available to any defendant who wanted to view them, which is all that is required by law. Additionally, prosecutors offered to scan and produce at the people’s cost all the documents prosecutors believed were related to the case, even though that was a time-consuming procedure. They also offered to download evidence from seized computers on a defense-supplied hard drive.
“Multiple co-defendants have viewed the seized evidence. Defendant has never made any attempt to view the evidence. … Defendant never made any attempt to receive copies of the seized computers.
“Defendant’s tardy claim to have been denied timely discovery is clearly contrived,” Hanks wrote.
Instead of producing the discovery, the defense motion claims, prosecutors told Aklufi in November they planned to present the Beaumont case to a grand jury for indictment on Jan. 16 of this year. A grand jury indictment would preclude a preliminary hearing.
But on Dec. 19, four more defendants pleaded guilty in the case. Another two pleaded guilty earlier. Most of the defendants pleaded guilty to charges including embezzlement, misappropriation of public funds and conflict of interest stemming from the illicit diversion of regional transportation money to local city funds, prosecutors said.
“After Aklufi’s counsel apprised the District Attorney’s Office that there was no longer any reason to seek an indictment in the case, the District Attorney’s Office represented to Aklufi that it would proceed forward with the previously-set February 22, 2018 preliminary hearing date,” the dismissal motion said.
In their papers, prosecutors said that Aklufi requested proceeding to the scheduled preliminary hearing instead of the grand jury, and they agreed. Aklufi’s attorneys say they are prepared to attack the embezzlement charges as insufficient, with no evidence to support he appropriated any of the regional transit fees.