Friday, September 12, 2014

Grand Jury Foreman Responds

By Finley Williams, Foreperson, Mendocino County Grand Jury
Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal, 09/07/2014 08:13:13 AM PDT

To the Editor:

   Over the last few months, the 2014-2015 Grand Jury has watched as a number of reports issued by the 2013-2014 Grand Jury have attracted considerable comment from county officials, the press and the public. Most of the comments from the county officials have been critical of the manner in which the reports were written, the tone of the language used in the reports, the presentation of the issues in the reports and the alleged truthfulness of the facts and conclusions contained in those reports.
   There has also been expressed concern by the press and the public about why the Grand Jury does not provide responses to comments made by the public and public officials regarding the reports. There is no provision in the law that allows the Grand Jury to make such responses. The purpose of this letter is to inform the public about the roles and responsibilities of the Grand Jury and the procedures that we are required to follow.
   In Mendocino County, the Grand Jury is selected each year from volunteers who file an application with the Superior Court to serve on the Grand Jury. These volunteers are carefully interviewed and have background checks to insure that they are qualified to serve and bring an open mind to the process. The selection process helps to inform the Judiciary as to the fitness for duty of those who are willing to give generously of their time and abilities to fulfill the constitutionally mandated duties of a Grand Juror.
   Once the selection process is concluded, the Supervising Judge instructs the Jurors as to their duties and responsibilities in the charge read to the Jurors after the oath of office is given. In part, the charge requires the Juror not to discuss anything they may hear, see or determine while serving their one term as a Juror with anyone — forever. The only way any information may leave the Grand Jury is through the report process.

    In Mendocino County, the size of the jury is 19 people. No topic is selected for investigation and no report is approved for issuance without the concurrence of at least 12 of those Jurors. The Jurors come from all walks of life. Many have had professional careers in fields ranging from law, taxes, and corporate positions at the highest level to construction, farming, ranching and homemakers. What ties them together is a desire to shine a light on the decision making and financial process in our local governments. This light is intended to allow the public to know, without the filters of self-serving statements from our local public servants, what our local officials are doing with public monies and the public's trust.
   In short, the Grand Jury is the public's watchdog.

   State law governs the manner in which the various reports are written and what retention of records is required or allowed. While each Grand Jury is an independent entity intended to exist for only a single year, each Grand Jury is permitted to pass on the next Grand Jury any pertinent documents that were collected in an investigation, suggested topics for the next year and the responsibility to collect and publish the responses to the reports issued by the outgoing Grand Jury. What may not be passed on to the next Jury is any evidence of testimony heard or even the identities of those persons interviewed. This is in order to protect the identities of witnesses and guarantee the confidentiality of the Grand Jury process.
   This guarantee of confidentiality is the basis of what makes the Grand Jury an effective watchdog. The knowledge that a person may report misuse of funds, violations of law and abuse of position without fear of retribution from those who have done any of these things means that the public gets to know what their elective and appointed officials are doing. All this is to insure the efficient and orderly working of government to the benefit of the public that places their trust in those self/same officials.

   Each fact printed in a report from any Grand Jury is carefully vetted to make sure that the fact is indeed a fact. Where a newspaper might use two sources to establish a fact, a Grand Jury must use a minimum of three sources to start to consider a statement as a fact. In practice, the Grand Jury will interview many more than three people to establish whether the statements made in the interview of any one person is a fact. Most facts are also supported by documents that may be obtained by a simple request for the document or by subpoena when necessary.
   Interviews are not conducted with just one level of employee within any government department or division. Most levels are included in the interview process, from the top level official in the department to those working at the front line of the department. This is done to make sure that what is being told to the Grand Jury is not just the grousing of a disenchanted individual, but is what is actually being done in the department.

   Each report contains the facts that the Grand Jury used in reaching the determinations listed in the Findings and Recommendations. When those facts are disputed by the responding parties, the only way the Grand Jury can establish the veracity of the prior Grand Jury's report is to repeat the investigation. This has been done on occasion in previous Grand Juries with the result being a determination by the subsequent Grand Jury as to the complete truthfulness of the prior Grand Jury.
   This vindication was not the result of the same Jurors saying we did the job right, but unrelated Jurors saying, the facts as stated were properly established and are true. This is the backbone of all Grand Jury work. The process is followed to prevent the issuance of a report based on innuendo and falsehoods.

   It should be noted that each report goes through a considerable review process before it is published. This process includes multiple reviews by the Jurors of what is in the report and how the facts, findings and recommendations are expressed. Then before a report is sent for independent review, an exit interview is held with the concerned department head to make sure that if a fact has changed from when the investigation was started and the report written, that change is reflected in the report.

   When the independent review is conducted, the proposed final report is carefully and thoroughly examined as to whether all facts expressed were properly triangulated or supported by adequate documentation. Everything is double and triple checked. Once the report clears this review, it is placed before the Full Panel of Jurors for discussion and a vote.
   As I mentioned earlier, the minimum vote for approval of a report is 12 of 19 Jurors. In practice, if a report receives only 12 of 19 votes to publish, the report is placed back on the table for further consideration. In my experience, a report seldom is approved with less than 13 of 19 Jurors. Every care is taken to make sure that what the Grand Jury is reporting is accurate, up-to-date and may be trusted by the public as to the truthfulness of the final product.

   Following the vote of the Full Panel, the reports are forwarded to County Counsel and the Supervising Judge for their review as to legal sufficiency and whether the Grand Jury has libeled anyone in the reports. If they have a concern or question about a report, the issue is brought back before the Full Panel for consideration of the comment from either party. A response is generated and supplied to both County Counsel and the Supervising Judge. If a change is warranted in a report, the Full Panel will again consider the report with the changes and the corrected report is again sent to County Counsel and the Supervising Judge. Generally the report is approved or consented by the Supervising Judge and the Grand Jury sends a copy of the report to those individuals, boards or councils who are required to respond.
   After 48 hours, the reports are posted on the Grand Jury website for the public to review at .

   As you can see from the process described, no report goes out without a lot of work and efforts insuring the facts are accurate, the analysis of the law is appropriate and the conclusions reached are warranted.
   The process requires the Grand Jury to use only the facts obtained in the investigations as the basis for its reports. There is no advantage to the Grand Jury to provide anything other than the facts.

   The 2013-2014 Grand Jury devoted thousands of volunteer hours to determine and verify the facts involving the Mendocino County government and agencies before publishing its reports. The Grand Jury investigations were conducted fairly and honestly, and there was no benefit to the citizens who devoted their time and energy to preparing the reports. I urge the community to consider this when weighing some of the responses to those reports made by our government agencies and public officials.


– Finley Williams, Foreperson, Mendocino County Grand Jury

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