Two members of Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury’s staff--including a deputy prosecutor--were charged Friday with a felony by the state attorney general’s office for allegedly listening in on a conversation between a burglary defendant and his lawyer in January.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Stacy A. Ratner, a six-year county prosecutor, and investigator Katherine Smith have been placed on administrative leave, Bradbury’s office said in a written statement.
The case is believed to include the first felony charges ever filed against a county prosecutor or district attorney’s investigator, veteran lawyers said.
It also comes less than six months after Bradbury criticized California Atty. Gen. Daniel E. Lungren for opposing him in a dispute between Bradbury and Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block over an ill-fated drug raid that led to the death of a Malibu millionaire.
“I see that as Lungren getting even, you betcha,” said Ventura attorney Richard Hanawalt. The charges against Ratner and Smith are the first to be filed against a prosecutor and investigator in his 31 years of practicing law here, Hanawalt said.
Although charges were not filed in Ventura County Municipal Court until Friday afternoon, word of the impending action left Ratner and Smith’s colleagues dispirited.
On Thursday, sources said, senior officials in Bradbury’s office held an hours-long meeting in which the charges against Ratner and Smith were discussed.
Several prosecutors who were contacted Friday would only say that something “very sad” was about to occur.
Officially, the district attorney’s office released a terse, three-paragraph statement that echoed those sentiments. The release, which mentioned neither Ratner nor Smith by name, read:
“We are saddened by the news that two of our employees have been charged with a crime.
“The employees involved are fine people who have served the public over several years. Both have been placed on a leave of absence with pay while this charge is pending.
“We are confident the justice system will provide a prompt and fair resolution of the case for all concerned. “While this matter is pending before the court, there will be no further comment by this office.”
The attorney general’s office also had little to say.
In a written statement, however, state officials noted that the matter was referred to them by Bradbury’s office.
Ratner and Smith were charged with one count each of eavesdropping on a conversation between a prisoner and an attorney under Section 636 of the California Penal Code. They are scheduled to be arraigned in Municipal Court at 10 a.m. May 31.
The case has been randomly assigned to Superior Court Judge Lawrence Storch, who was recently disqualified by Bradbury from hearing any new cases prosecuted by the district attorney’s office. Storch can hear the case against Ratner and Smith because it is being prosecuted by the state attorney general’s office.
Authorities began investigating Ratner and Smith after Ventura County Sheriff’s Deputy Edward LeClair reported on Jan. 19 that he suspected the two of wrongdoing.
LeClair thought Ratner had ordered Smith to eavesdrop on a conversation between Deputy Public Defender Mary L. Fielder and Robert Lee Morrow, 30, who is accused of residential burglary. Morrow and Fielder were talking in a room that adjoins Courtroom No. 44 in the Hall of Justice about 3:25 p.m. when, according to LeClair’s report, Ratner looked at Smith and motioned her to the holding cell. LeClair is bailiff of that courtroom.
Smith walked over to a chair about four feet from the holding cell and sat in it, says LeClair’s report, obtained from court records. LeClair said Smith “was leaning forward and to her left . . . to better overhear the conversation.”
The bailiff said he questioned Smith about why she was listening to the conversation. “I’m just here to make sure he (Morrow) doesn’t go off on her (Fielder),” Smith replied, according to LeClair’s report.
“I thought this to be very peculiar because any problems in court are usually handled by the bailiff or at least the bailiff is informed about possible disruptive situations,” LeClair’s report says.
The bailiff said that after the public defender and her client finished talking, Smith went over to Ratner and began talking to her.
LeClair declined to comment Friday when told of the charges against Ratner and Smith because he is scheduled to testify against them.
Fielder also said that she could not talk because the Morrow case is ongoing. Several other members of the public defender’s office who asked not to be identified said Ratner and Smith have always been ethical in previous dealings with them.
Defense attorney Hanawalt said it is hard to comprehend the attorney general’s office seeking a felony conviction against Ratner and Smith.
“I know Stacy. She is not the vicious type,” he said. “For Stacy, it has to be a shattering experience.”
Neither Ratner nor Smith could be reached for comment.
Ratner has retained Ventura criminal defense attorney James M. Farley, who declined immediate comment. Smith has retained Santa Monica lawyer Stuart D. Adams, who could not be reached for comment.
Morrow, who is being held in Ventura County Jail in lieu of $10,000 bail, is charged with breaking into a room at the Marv-Inn Motel in Port Hueneme on Sept. 14, 1993, while its occupants were asleep, officials said.
He has pleaded not guilty and asked for a jury trial, which is scheduled to begin June 6.
Ratner was taken off his case as prosecutor after LeClair’s report. The case has been reassigned to Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert D. Meyers. He could not be reached for comment.