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A Ventura County political fight heads for criminal court

California politics can be brutal, but seldom is blood actually drawn.

In Ventura County, however, one political fight is headed for criminal court, with the chief advisor for a Republican lawmaker accused of attacking three protesters. They include a 69-year-old Episcopal priest who complains he was body-slammed, his shoulder damaged so badly that a year later he still has trouble raising the chalice during Mass.

Jose “Joel” Angeles, chief of staff for Assemblywoman Audra Strickland (R-Thousand Oaks), is charged with battery causing serious bodily injury and violating civil rights stemming from a confrontation in June. The incident involved mostly Democratic protesters outside a fundraiser for Strickland’s Republican husband, state Sen. Tony Strickland.

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Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was about to give the keynote speech at the event at the Hyatt Westlake Plaza Hotel in Thousand Oaks when the brawl took place. The office of state Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, a Democrat and expected gubernatorial candidate, filed the charges. Brown’s office stepped in because Ventura County Dist. Atty. Gregory D. Totten and Sheriff Bob Brooks were both inside the hotel at the fundraiser, creating a potential conflict of interest.

Angeles’ attorney is Steve Baric, president of the California Republican Lawyers Assn.

“This case is politically motivated,” Baric said. The protesters “made their complaint in the middle of the most heated legislative campaign in the state.” Tony Strickland beat Democrat Hannah-Beth Jackson of Santa Barbara in the Nov. 4 race by 857 votes out of 415,000 cast.

Tony Strickland, for whom the 43-year-old Angeles has long worked as a political operative, also says the charges are unwarranted. “I guarantee if it is anybody else but me, there wouldn’t be this donnybrook,” Strickland said.

Scott Gerber, a spokesman for Brown, says the case is being handled by professional prosecutors based on the evidence, and he called the charges of political motivation “utter nonsense.”

The priest, Jack Phillips, is president of the Democratic Club of Camarillo. His motive in pressing charges, he said, is justice.

Angeles “body-slammed me into the ground,” Phillips said. “I tore my rotator cuff, and I had to have surgery.”

Another of the 55 protesters, Ventura County businessman Louis J. Pandolfi, is a registered Republican but said he showed up to voice his disgust with campaign contributions Tony Strickland had taken from tobacco companies. He said the demonstration was peaceful until some protesters approached Strickland’s backers in front of the hotel and Angeles got rough.

The criminal case is scheduled to be heard in Ventura County Superior Court on June 18.

According to a written account that Pandolfi and Phillips provided to authorities, Angeles shouted, “You are atheists! You are not Americans, you are cowards! If you step foot on this curb, you will go down!”

When Phillips, Pandolfi and college student Sandy Quiring stepped onto the sidewalk, Angeles pushed them back, the three allege. Quiring landed in some shrubs, sustaining minor cuts. Phillips, a Vietnam veteran, injured his shoulder.

The four-count criminal complaint, signed by Deputy Atty. Gen. Nancy James, alleges that Angeles “inflicted serious bodily injury” on Phillips.

Baric said Angeles, who faces up to three years in jail, was punched in the face but is unsure by whom.

“This case is ridiculous,” Baric said. “They actually initiated everything that happened that day.”

Phillips said nobody punched Angeles. “I touched him on the chin with one finger and told him to back away,” he said.

Audra Strickland briefly suspended Angeles from his state job after the criminal allegations first surfaced, but he is now back in the $80,500-a-year position.

“I have full confidence in his abilities,” the assemblywoman said. “This is a political witch hunt.”

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patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com


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