Ventura County Community College District Trustee James T. (Tom) Ely and his wife, Ingrid, pleaded not guilty Tuesday to charges they bilked the district out of thousands of dollars in improper trip expenses.
The Elys stood smiling before Ventura County Municipal Judge Barry B. Klopfer amid the clatter of news camera shutters as their attorneys entered the pleas. The couple’s attorneys denied two counts each of conspiracy to commit grand theft, and Tom Ely’s attorney also denied eight counts of embezzlement and 19 counts of making a false or fraudulent claim.
The Elys were arrested at their Simi Valley house, handcuffed and released on $5,000 bail each on Aug. 14 after a 4 1/2-month investigation by the district attorney’s office into junkets and personal purchases they allegedly charged to district credit cards.
The Elys have hired two Ventura defense attorneys--James M. Farley for Tom Ely and Willard P. Wiksell for Ingrid Ely--who asked the court to drop the couple’s bail.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Carol J. Nelson first asked to have only Ingrid Ely’s bail dropped, citing a recent visit that Tom Ely made to a colleague in Nevada as evidence of his ties outside the state. “The $5,000 that was set on Mr. Ely serves as a reminder that we’re going to do this on the court schedule and not on the Elys’ schedule.”
Ingrid Ely shook her head with a rueful smile while her husband gazed at the floor, grinning.
But Klopfer released them both on a promise to appear after Farley protested. “To have bail on him would be ludicrous,” Farley said. “This man’s not going anywhere. . . . He’s anxious to fight these charges.”
Farley and Wiksell also filed a motion asking the court to prevent Nelson from using hearsay testimony during the preliminary hearing.
The defense attorneys argued that the Elys are accused of crimes that took place before the June 5 passage of Proposition 115, a law that allows one investigator or police officer to testify about all the evidence and interviews he or she gathers.
Nelson said that if the judge refuses to allow such testimony, she must have witnesses from other states and Canada flown in to testify about the Elys’ expenses. A hearing on the motion is scheduled for Sept. 6 in Municipal Court, and the preliminary hearing is set for Sept. 19.
After the arraignment, Wiksell criticized Nelson’s request to use hearsay testimony and he called the charges against the Elys “a piddling, nickel-and-dime case.”
“They’re certainly serious allegations, but for us to defend them, we’re going to have to cross-examine pieces of paper and you can’t do that,” Wiksell said, referring to the Elys’ hotel receipts and expense reports.
Meanwhile, four investigators from the district attorney’s office searched the Elys’ house on Monday afternoon and seized papers, computer disks and personal effects--some of which had nothing to do with their case, the couple said.
“They took things that were far in excess of the scope of the warrant, like plaques off the wall and videotapes . . . home movies,” Tom Ely said.
Nelson said she had not seen the investigators’ report on what they seized.