The Santa Barbara Board of Supervisors paid $15,000 to the SB County Libertarian Party (SBLP) in a mid-January, out-of-court settlement, ending the party’s lawsuit against SB County Sheriff Jim Thomas for allegedly misusing taxpayer funds and inappropriately campaigning.
Thomas’ support of Measure U — a proposal that failed on last year’s ballot to raise county sales taxes to fund county jail improvements and expansions — was criticized by the SBLP because of the sheriff’s use of $10,000 of public funds to produce a video endorsing the measure, which aired several times on public access television Channel 17.
Robert Bakhaus, the SBLP’s lead litigant, said the party saw the sheriff’s support of Measure U as an attempt to further his own re-election agenda.
“The sheriff was trying to rebuild the detention center and jail through the Measure U initiative. Despite [receiving] many endorsements of the sales tax to implement these programs, we saw him riding around in his uniform, illegally using taxpayer money to get himself re-elected. We were strongly opposed to his campaign,” he said.
Thomas, a three-term sheriff who announced in November he will not seek re-election in 2002, said he did not see a fault in his actions, and his support of Measure U was in response to the overcrowding and lack of facilities in the county jail system.
“[I] did not agree with the allegations set forth. There were no violations, so we decided to settle time, strength and finances through a settlement,” he said. “I supported Measure U because we needed a north county jail. We need more space; it’s as simple as that. It was and continues to be a necessity.”
Bill Hansult, attorney for the SBLP, said that because the lawsuit brought the issue to the attention of the Santa Barbara County, the county would be consulted before public monies are used for campaign endeavors in the future.
“Now there is a checks and balances system implemented. If the sheriff were to consider making another ‘educational video’ or any other type of vehicle for communication of a campaign matter, prior to engaging, he must run it by the county, where there can be open public debate on the matter,” he said. “We really set precedent here, and we are very proud of that.”
Thomas said he gave the SBLP an opportunity to take part in the production of the video, but they declined.
“They claimed that they didn’t have an opportunity to voice their opinions regarding the spending, but when we asked them if they wanted to take part in the public-access program, they declined. That was probably our strongest defense that led to the eventual settlement,” Thomas said.
According to criminal law, if the SBLP had wanted Thomas to pay the fine, it would have to prove criminal culpability in court. Bakhaus said a court hearing would have been difficult and time consuming, so the SBLP decided to settle out of the courtroom.
“We would have had to prove that he knew he was violating the law — that would have taken years and would have been almost impossible to prove,” he said. “Instead, the litigation insurance of the government pays the fine. But that is still taxpayer money.”
Thomas said the settlement was a collaborate effort to end the litigation process. “If this had gone through court, there is no doubt in my mind that we would have prevailed,” he said. “Settlement of a case doesn’t assign blame. It is an agreement between sides not to go any further. They made their concerns known, and we responded.”
Bakhaus said the settlement was a costly victory for taxpayers. “In essence, the sheriff stole taxpayer money, defended himself with taxpayer money, and the fine was paid with taxpayer money,” he said. “We are really proud of the settlement, given our small size and the fact that we have no taxpayer money. We still fought Goliath.”