Assessor John Tuteur is officially free of the threat of removal from his elected office stemming from 2017-18 grand jury charges of “corrupt or willful misconduct.”
Napa County Superior Court Judge Mark Boessenecker on Thursday dismissed the case. He had said during a Nov. 9 hearing that he was inclined to take this action, but had some concerns with the wording of the dismissal order submitted by Tuteur’s attorney.
Tuteur on Thursday said the state Attorney General’s Office submitted a dismissal order and that is what Boessenecker signed.
“It’s unfortunate this process took place,” Tuteur said. “I’m glad it’s over. The time and money spent was wasted, but the results are what I had hoped for and expected.”
Court hearings in the Tuteur case lacked drama, given the accusations, Tuteur’s defense and the Attorney General’s Office response all came through court filings. Several hearings focused for the most part on whether the grand jury had to release investigative materials and transcripts.
Even the Nov. 9 hearing that focused on the charges themselves proved short and without tensions, given the Attorney General’s Office had already decided the evidence presented to the grand jury didn’t warrant prosecution.
The grand jury made four accusations against Tuteur last March after an Assessor’s Office employee approached the grand jury with complaints against Tuteur.
One grand jury charge involved a 2008 error assessing a cell tower lease on the Tuteur family’s south Napa County ranch. The Assessor’s Office found the error in 2016. The grand jury accused Tuteur of failing to pay $20,000 in back property taxes.
Tuteur’s defense said the chief appraiser continued working on the complicated corrections until this year. The ultimate back tax ended up being $1,453.
The dismissal order says the count “fails to allege willful misconduct by the defendant and is not supported by sufficient admissible evidence.”
Other accusations involved how Tuteur has administered the state’s Williamson Act, which provides a tax break to farm owners in exchange for keeping land in agriculture.
For example, 80 percent of vineyard property owners and 40 percent of grazing land owners failed to return complete questionnaires with agricultural income information in 2016. Tuteur failed to take action to make these Williamson Act beneficiaries comply, the grand jury charged.
The dismissal order says the count “fails to allege a mandatory duty of the defendant and is not supported by sufficient admissible evidence.” It uses similar language for the remaining two counts.
Tuteur has been Napa County Assessor since 1987 and won another four-year term last June. The office also includes the Recorder/County Clerk office that has Tuteur overseeing elections as the Registrar of Voters.
The grand jury also brought up Williamson Act issues in a separate report not involving the Tuteur charges. The county Board of Supervisors disagreed that the agricultural tax breaks have lax local oversight, cost taxpayers and do little to buttress existing laws protecting wine country farmland from development.
ST. HELENA — For eight months in 2004, Elle Snow was trafficked throughout the Bay Area against her will as a prostitute. She worked in a brothel in Walnut Creek, where every half-hour there was another man, willing to pay for sex. Three women were lined up and the man would pick one of them, Snow said during a St. Helena presentation.
The pimp told Snow that prostitution was just what she was made for, that she was oversexualized and that’s why her uncle sexually abused her when she was young. After that first day in the brothel, Snow said, “I believed him.” And then the pimp broke her in, “just like a horse,” Snow added.
Eventually, she escaped the brothel and contacted law enforcement. She testified against the pimp in 2014 and he was sentenced to 10½ years in prison. He served four years and was released earlier this year. She didn’t realize it at the time, but the pimp targeted her, romanced her and then, on a three-day vacation turned her into a prostitute. She was physically and mentally abused.
Soroptimist International of St. Helena and St. Helena Sunrise sponsored a panel on human trafficking a week ago at the St. Helena High School Performing Art Center. It included a panel discussion, “How to Keep Napa Valley Safe,” with Lt. Gary Pitkin with the Napa Special Investigations Bureau and Laurel Botsford, founder and president of Wisdom International; an update of Congressional action by Rep. Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena; and Snow as the keynote speaker.
Today Snow is a survivor and is fighting sex trafficking through her nonprofit, “Game Over,” whose mission is to provide education on how to prevent, identify and assist those who have been sex trafficked. She provides training to youth groups, community members, service providers, social workers, foster parents, medical staff and law enforcement agencies throughout the nation.
- The federal Violence Against Women Act that Congress authorized in 1994 is temporarily funded until Dec. 8. Earlier this fall, the U.S. Senate extended the VAWA with a continuing resolution with the same level of funding as is in 2018. Thompson said more funding is needed. “We need to make sure to adapt to the needs of the issue and provide the adequate funding to ensure these victims get the help they need,” he said.
- Congress recently passed and the president signed a bill, “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017,” Thompson said. The bill allows states and survivors to sue websites for anything they do to facilitate sex trafficking. “As you know, the best ways to get to an issue is through the pocketbook,” Thompson said. “So hopefully, that will bear some fruit.”
- Sex trafficking is definitely here, Botsford said. “With all the bridges it is really easy to transport victims to other areas, from Napa to Bay Area cities.” Pitkin agreed, saying that Napa County victims are being transported to the Bay Area and out-of-county pimps are coming to Napa County. “Modern-day kidnapping is happening through the internet.”
- The Napa Special Investigations Bureau was formed in 1976 and over the years, it morphed into a drug task force, Pitkin said. At the end of 2016, its members started to hear about human trafficking and commercial sex workers. “We started sending our folks to training,” Pitkin said, and found out the sex workers use the internet for advertising. “We were blown away by the commercial sex workers offering services in Napa County,” he said. In the North Bay, hundreds of people were advertising their services. Recently, NSIB detectives posted a fake ad telling of their services online and within hours, 185 people texted and another 100 people called, Pitkin said.
- Trainers were sent to a briefing of night-shift patrol officers, who didn’t believe sex trafficking was happening in Napa County. They received training for 15 to 20 minutes and about four hours later, at midnight, Pitkin said the patrol officers got a report of a pimp and a victim. “They rescued her, put the pimp in jail, then went to the victim’s best friend, rescued her and arrested the pimp,” Pitkin said.
- Of the cases the NSIB detectives have prosecuted, every one of the pimps has pleaded guilty and were sentenced to three years, six years or 20 years in state prison, Pitkin said.
- In April, the Justice Department announced the seizure of Backpage.com, the Internet’s leading forum for prostitution ads, and seven people were charged in a 93-count federal indictment. Snow, who works for Erik Bauer, the lawyer who helped shut down Backpage.com, said the site made half a billion dollars in 10 years. Trafficking will not stop, she predicts, but will move overseas, back into the streets, in brothels and deeper into the web.
- Snow is co-creator and one of the playwrights for “Jane Doe in Wonderland,” Theater Against Sex Trafficking. She is a two-time Soroptimist Ruby Award winner and has been recognized by Congress and the Senate for her work in the anti-trafficking movement.
Community Action Napa Valley’s free food pantry that serves 2,500 people per month was facing the very real threat of closure.
The lease for the Napa Storehouse, 1746 Yajome St., was coming to an end and The Father’s House church, which holds the lease and pays the pantry’s rent, balked at having the rent raised from $3,995 to $4,370 a month.
“We can’t do it,” Pastor Raymond Beaty of The Father’s House said during a phone interview on Tuesday.
“This comes at a really bad time,” CANV food bank program director Shirley King said on Tuesday. The holidays and winter are some of the busiest months at the food pantry.
Unless a new location could be found, the last shopping day at the Napa Storehouse would be Dec. 28, said King.
On Wednesday the unexpected happened. The closure was halted when the landlord, Carl Lenzi had a change of heart. Told that the rent increase would mean the food pantry’s closure, he said was willing to cut the rent to approximately $2,500 per month.
Yes, he has his own mortgage to pay for the commercial property, but he knows there are hungry people who depend on the food pantry, Lenzi said in an interview.
“I’d hate to lose them” as a tenant, he said.
Pastor Beaty described Lenzi’s offer of much-reduced rent as “fantastic.”
The lease will be extended for another year, Beaty said. The church will continue to pay the rent.
“They said they would stay,” said Lenzi. “And I’m excited about it.”
“We’re super grateful, especially given this time of year,” Beaty said. “We’re excited for all the people it’s going to help.”
“Christmas came early,” said King. “I feel like I can breathe again.”
“We’re just so relieved and thankful,” said Joan Lyon, a volunteer supervisor at the food pantry. “We couldn’t be happier.”
“I’m relieved we have some time to work on a plan of action for the future,” said King.
“I’m still working to identify another space so that in another year we don’t go through this again,” said King. “We will definitely be looking for a new location.”
Ideally, the food bank needs a food pantry site that is rent free, said King. The six other Napa county food bank centers operate rent free, she noted.
“We’re not in a position” to pay rent, said King.
Unlike some food banks that only supply prepackaged boxes of food, the Napa Storehouse allows customers to “shop” at a small market-like store. Customers choose their own food which means those with dietary or other restrictions and preferences can get the food they want and need.
While CANV has six other food pantry locations in Napa County, the Napa food pantry is the largest. An estimated 50 percent of all food CANV receives goes to help Napa Storehouse shoppers, said King.
“The majority of the people we serve are working class poor” who face food insecurity, said King. Napa has a high cost of living, she said. Twenty percent of the people the food pantries in Napa County serve are seniors, said King.
The Napa food pantry is typically open during limited daytime hours on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
Napa County supervisors extended a moratorium on commercial cannabis activity in the unincorporated areas through 2019, though not without taking some heat over what cannabis supporters perceived as fear-mongering.
The Board of Supervisors at Tuesday’s meeting passed the moratorium ordinance. The move gives supervisors more time to decide if the unincorporated county should allow commercial cannabis grows and a dispensary and, if so, to craft regulations.
Anne Steinhauer of the Napa Valley Cannabis Association didn’t like the tone of the ordinance.
“It is full of fear-based tactics, misinformation and misdirection,” Steinhauer said. “It absolutely does not in any way represent the legal cannabis industry today.”
The ordinance says that, without sufficient regulations, commercial cannabis activity poses a threat to public health, safety and welfare. One danger is increased crime because dried, processed cannabis is worth $1,400 to $1,700 a pound.
“The strong odor of cannabis creates an attractive nuisance, alerting persons to the location of valuable plants and increasing the risk of burglary, armed robbery or other violent crimes,” the ordinance says.
Increased emergency room visits can result from minors accidentally ingesting cannabis. Calls to poison control centers doubled following the start of commercial cannabis sales in Colorado in 2014, the ordinance says.
Cannabis use by adolescents in Napa County is already higher than the state average. Drugged driving rose in Washington and Colorado after cannabis legalization in those states. The federal government lists cannabis under a classification at risk for severe psychological and/or physical dependence, the ordinance says.
The Napa Valley Cannabis Association objected to the ordinance, not because of the moratorium, but because of such claims.
“We encourage you to remove the incendiary language,” Steinhauer told supervisors.
In one area that has legalized cannabis, a taxed and regulated industry contributes a net of more than $35 million to the local economy, Steinhauer said. She disputed the idea that legalized cannabis leads to increased youth use.
Deputy County Counsel John Myers said the ordinance describes what could happen with unregulated cannabis activity, not regulated activity.
“Those reasons are a basis of why we need a moratorium to begin with,” he said.
The county needs the moratorium to maintain the status quo while it works on regulations of its own. Otherwise, commercial cannabis activity here would be at the whim of the state, he said.
Supervisors kept the language in the ordinance.
“It comes across as biased and I get that’s how it’s viewed,” Supervisor Ryan Gregory said. “When this comes back, I want a really healthy objective review by this Board of what we want to do in the future. I’m committed to that, despite what this says.”
Eric Sklar of the Napa Valley Cannabis Association said the way to reduce crime associated with cannabis is to make cannabis legal in all of its aspects. He urged supervisors to have regulations for commercial cannabis cultivation in place by June.
“It’s a dereliction of duty not to do that,” he told supervisors.