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State Investigates Fresno|Superior Court Judge

FRESNO, Calif. (CN) - A Fresno County Superior Court judge is facing an official accusation that he helped an acquaintance accused of spousal abuse get out of jail without bond.

The California Commission on Judicial Performance said Tuesday that it has opened formal proceedings against Judge James Petrucelli, who has been a judge with the Fresno court since 1999, on charges of willful misconduct in office and improper action.

Petrucelli allegedly ordered the Fresno jail to release businessman Jay Ghazal on his own recognizance on July 13, 2013.

According to the Notice of Formal Proceedings, on the morning of July 13, 2013, Petrucelli received a text message from attorney Jonathan Netzer, stating: "Good morning Jim. One of our HBC members was arrested last night on a domestic violence claim. He's asking that I bail him out this morning. In 22 years of practice, the [sic] is a first for me. Do you have any suggestions for me before I head down to jail? Thanks!"

"HBC" refers to "a monthly weekend cigars-and-barbecue event," organized by Netzer, according to the Notice.

In response, Petrucelli called the jail, identified himself as a judge, and requested that jail officials release Ghazal on his own recognizance, according to the Notice.

After verifying Petrucelli's identity as a judge, jail officials released Ghazal, the commission says.

According to the Notice of Formal Proceedings: "You ordered the OR release on the basis of your personal knowledge of Mr. Ghazal and ex parte communications with Mr. Netzer, a friend of both you and Mr. Ghazal. The matter of Mr. Ghazal's release would not properly be before you, and you would have been disqualified had the matter come before you in the ordinary course of judicial business because of your relationship with both Mr. Ghazal and Mr. Netzer."

A person arrested for spousal abuse cannot be released on his own recognizance in California without a court hearing. The bail for the domestic violence charge Ghazal was facing would have been approximately $65,000, but Ghazal was allowed to leave without a hearing or being required to post bail, the commission says.

On the evening of Ghazal's release, Petrucelli attended a fund raiser which both Ghazal and Netzer attended. Ghazal asked Petrucelli for advice about a lawyer, prompting Petrucelli to call a defense attorney two days later on behalf of Ghazal, according to the Notice.

Commencement of formal proceedings is not a determination of judicial misconduct, the commission said in a statement.

A hearing will be held by a special masters appointed by the California Supreme Court, during which both sides may introduce evidence and examine witnesses.

San Francisco attorney Kathleen Ewins will represent the judge in the hearing.

"If the commission determines that the charges are proved by clear and convincing evidence, it is empowered to remove, censure, publicly admonish, or privately discipline the judge. Charges that the commission determines are not proved will be dismissed," the commission said in its Oct. 14 statement. This is not the first time Petrucelli has been in trouble with the commission. In 2007, he was publicly admonished for "making discourteous and sarcastic comments to attorneys and litigants appearing before him."

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