[Moxley Confidential] Senator Dick Ackerman Does the Right Thing In the Case of James Ochoa

Very Strange Bedfellows
Senator Dick Ackerman proves there can be honor in a flip-flop

For James Ochoa, the 20-year-old Orange County man arrested and sent to prison in 2005 for a robbery/carjacking he didn't commit, justice is finally a mere two steps away. On Aug. 7, the California Senate approved a $31,700 state treasury payment to Ochoa as symbolic compensation for his wrongful 16-month incarceration. The measure, which has been needlessly controversial, now sits in the Assembly, where passage and a trip to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk are expected in coming weeks.

Despite the righteousness of the payment, getting to this point hasn't been easy. Indeed, the proposal appeared dead until last week. A group of Senate Republicans (sans the always-principled Tom McClintock) wanted a new pawn in the perpetual partisan chess match with Democrats. From billions of dollars in suggested state appropriations, they plucked out Ochoa's measly sum and, on mind-numbingly absurd grounds, cried foul.

For three months, the GOP effort worked against Ochoa, who'd already faced a long list of villains, including dead-sure but dead-wrong eyewitnesses, sloppy cops, an unscrupulous police-dog handler, callous prosecutors and an obnoxious judge—all of whom knew the incurable weaknesses of the case prior to trial, thanks in part to "The Case of the Dog That Couldn't Sniff Straight," a 2005 OC Weekly exposé. At one point, the compensation proposal was two votes shy of winning in the senate after Senator Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana) decided to not take a stance.

But then two unlikely heroes joined McClintock and the Democrats to reject politicization of the case: Scott Baugh, chairman of the Republican Party of Orange County, and Dick Ackerman, the Republican state senator from Fullerton.

Here's the untold history: In April, the California Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board unanimously concluded during a public hearing that Ochoa was entitled to a $100-per-day unjust-imprisonment fee. (The money applies to the 317 days Ochoa spent in state prison; not for time in county jail, where he languished for five additional months.) After board approval, the matter went to the legislature for approval.

Usually, such items garner little or no attention. But on July 2, Senator Jeff Denham (R-Merced) announced that he would block all appropriation bills containing a payment to Ochoa, whom he asserted caused his own nightmare.

Ponder this doozy: Denham and the Republican caucus staff argued that although Ochoa had repeatedly declared his innocence before the government sent him to prison, he hadn't protested his innocence enough.

Next, the spin turned slimy. On the floor of the Senate and holding a script in his hands, Denham wildly compared Ochoa to a "convicted rapist." He looked around the room to gauge reaction. Then he erroneously described Ochoa as a "meth-addict parolee."

Back in reality, Senator Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch) told Denham that it was the legislature's responsibility to address the "blatant miscarriage of justice" Ochoa experienced. Nevertheless, Denham's character assassination worked that day. Ochoa needed 27 votes but got only 25 (McClintock plus all Democrats except for Correa).

A frustrated Scott Borthwick, Ochoa's pro bono lawyer (who deserves a medal for his vigorous advocacy during this three-year ordeal), didn't know Baugh, but he called the former Assembly leader to explain the situation. Baugh, once the victim of overzealous local prosecutors himself, listened and took a step that changed everything.

"I got a call one day last month from Scott Baugh," Ackerman told me. "We're old friends. He asked me if I'd take another look at this case. I'd already voted against Ochoa in early July, but I told Scott, 'Yes, I will.' I actually had a staff meeting about it to discuss the pros and cons. I talked to the DA. I read the newspaper clips, and I asked Tom McClintock if he still felt strongly about voting for Ochoa. He said, 'Yeah, that guy got screwed.' The more I thought about it, I knew he was right."

On Aug. 7, Torlakson initiated a second floor debate on Senate Bill 1138, which contained Ochoa's payment. Ackerman spoke for the measure, and this time, it passed with a one-vote cushion. Fence-straddling must have made Correa's rear end sore: He finally jumped off and voted yes, too.

"Wow," Borthwick said when he learned of the outcome. "I can't say enough for Baugh and Ackerman. I'm impressed that they reached out and helped James when he needed them."

While some OC politicians (Mike Carona comes to mind) would have tried to win cheap PR for helping an abused underdog fight the bureaucracy, Ackerman merely went back to work on other issues until I phoned him the next day.

I asked, Why did you switch your vote?

Ackerman, a conservative Republican whose service in the senate ends this year due to term limits, was matter-of-fact. "Sometimes the system fails," he said. "In Ochoa's case, it failed. So it was the right thing to do."

Todd Spitzer, are you and other Assembly Republicans listening?

NO STREET CRIME?
Earlier this month, Ron Campbell at The Orange County Register reported that District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and the grand jury cleared county Treasurer Chriss Street of legal violations after a 2007 series of articles the newspaper published concerning the backdating of procurement documents, avoiding competitive bids, conducting personal affairs on county time and spending $1.5 million on office remodeling.

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