SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) –A former rural county judge running for California attorney general and facing 11 counts of ethics violations is casting the state’s investigation as “politically-motivated” and a ploy to sabotage his campaign.
The state Commission on Judicial Performance accuses former El Dorado County Superior Court Judge Steven Bailey of steering work to his son, taking gifts from local attorneys and of fundraising for his statewide bid during while still on the bench. The Republican candidate’s attorneys told a three-member ethics panel of current state judges Tuesday that the ethics charges are being levied in order to crush his chances in November.
Bailey’s attorney says the charges were “timed to coincide” with Bailey’s campaign and sparked by a commission made up mostly of Democrats. The lawyer and former judge is running off against Democratic incumbent Xavier Becerra in two months for California’s top law enforcement post and served on the Superior Court between 2009 and 2017.
“This is an overly-zealous, politically motivated charge brought after [Bailey] was retired,” said James Murphy, Bailey’s attorney, during a hearing in Sacramento. “It’s a clear effort to stifle Judge Bailey’s lawful speech and it violates the First Amendment.”
The judicial discipline commission, composed of six public members, three judges and two lawyers, issued 11 charges against Bailey in February. It claims Bailey funneled criminal defendants to an alcohol monitoring company that employs his son and appointed a lawyer as special master to a case without revealing that he was friends with the lawyer.
According to court documents, Bailey appointed attorney Bradley Clark at the rate of $350 per hour but didn’t disclose that he took gifts from Clark and even conducted Clark’s 2010 wedding.
“This is not a complicated case; Judge Bailey essentially admitted to all material facts,” said Mark Lizarraga, commission attorney.
The Republican hopeful advanced through the June “top-two primary” with 24 percent of the statewide vote, 21 points behind Becerra.
Tuesday’s hearing kicked off the ethics investigation conducted by San Diego Superior Court Judge Louis Hanoian, Imperial County Superior Court Judge William Lehman and Second Appellate District Justice Kenneth Yegan and could last several days. The trio will give their findings to the commission, with a final decision likely coming after the Nov. 6 election.
While the commission can’t disqualify Bailey from the ballot, it can publically censure and admonish him. Bailey would then have the chance to file a petition with the state Supreme Court and challenge any disciplinary action.
Bailey bounced in and out of Tuesday’s hearing while several former employees and colleagues testified against him.
Current El Dorado County Superior Judge Vicki Ashworth and another female court employee said they overheard Bailey make disparaging comments about a gay retail clothes salesman. They claimed to have heard Bailey say during a court break that “gay men are snappy dressers.”
“I was shocked at his behavior and that he would say that,” Ashworth said of Bailey while testifying under oath.
Bailey retired from the bench in August 2017 and officially filed for his statewide run in February. He denies that he violated state judicial guidelines or used his judicial title to raise funds for his campaign while still on the bench. He counters that he solicited advice from the Alliance of California Judges while he was on its board of directors.
But alliance board member Julie Conger, retired Alameda County Superior Court Judge, testified that Bailey in fact ignored her advice and continued to send out emails and campaign fliers using his judicial title.
“I was upset, I pulled over and thought about what was I going to do,” Conger said of receiving a Bailey campaign flier.
Conger says she immediately sent Bailey an email and asked him to resign from the alliance.
Bailey is also facing charges that he accepted over $700 in event tickets and gifts, inaccurately reported travel expenses and solicited campaign donations without taking a leave of absence.
“The elephant in the room is Bailey’s decision to run for attorney general; that’s what this case is all about,” Murphy said.