Ramsey in the crosshairs
Group targets Butte County district attorney for his aggressive prosecution of environmental crimes
Harold “Hal” Thomas is a trim man with graying hair, a moustache and a dapper style that looks too urbane for a town like Oroville. But that is where he finds himself nearly a decade after working as an attorney in the offices of the state Department of Fish & Game.
The story goes that he was set to become the head counsel for DFG until changing political winds blew through Sacramento and a certain governor got recalled.
Thomas still works for the DFG, which pays his salary, but he takes his marching orders from Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey. Thomas commutes daily from his Sacramento-area home to Oroville, a trip that takes him past the Highway 70 Industrial Park to his county office in the north part of town.
That park, the former home to three federal Superfund sites, sits near the Feather River in an area that was identified three years ago by the state Department of Public Health as having a pancreatic-cancer cluster.
Though the definitive cause of the cancer spike was never established, reports say that more than 50 percent of the victims ate fish from the Feather River and/or locally bagged game and locally raised meat.
In other words, there’s been some serious pollution over the years released in this neck of the woods, with devastating results.
And that is where Hal Thomas comes in—he is Ramsey’s environmental prosecutor, and he’s been quite aggressive and effective during his stint here.
But this is also where Thomas checks out, at least as far as this story is concerned. The prosecutor prefers to stay out of the limelight, referring reporters’ questions to Ramsey, an elected official who is anything but media-shy.
Still, Thomas is the catalyst of this story, which is about an effort to dump a DA who for more than 20 years has been chief lawman in the county, making him arguably the most powerful man in these parts.
The people trying to get rid of Ramsey say they’re just trying to make an honest living, offering services that the rest of us rely on. Things like the disposal of the used cars and appliances that our consumer-driven lifestyles create, or the agricultural-waste byproducts left in the wake of our taste for fruits and vegetables.
Somebody has to do these dirty jobs. Why, these folks ask, should they be prosecuted for our collective consumption?
This is where Citizens for Economic Balance, a political-action committee formed in October of last year, comes into play. CEB is a self-described “small group of Butte County farmers and business people” who say they’ve been harassed and selectively prosecuted by Ramsey via the overzealous efforts of Thomas.
The PAC’s existence came to light last May, when, during a Butte County Board of Supervisors meeting, a consent item—those matters deemed routine and noncontroversial—was pulled from the agenda for discussion.
The entry asked for the supervisors to pass a request by Ramsey for around $8,000 to pay for Thomas’ driving expenses to and from work. It was no big deal, really, in the bigger budget picture, even in a cash-strapped county.
So when a local woman, Kim Scott, asked that the matter be pulled for discussion, it caught many by surprise. Scott told the board that her father, George Scott, had been unfairly singled out for prosecution of alleged environmental crimes. Namely, that one of his four scrap-metal yards, the one that sits within the confines of the Highway 70 Industrial Park, was leaching chemical contaminants into the ground that migrated into the nearby Feather River.
Intensive gold dredging a hundred years ago has effectively removed the clay and soil that otherwise would have acted as a filter, collecting contaminates before they made their way to the river.
Scott was charged after receiving but not responding to an abatement order. After months of court proceedings, he took a plea bargain, resulting in $381,000 in fines.
Melvin Morris, owner of Morris Farms and Trucking, of Live Oak, said that he, too, was the victim of the DA’s unfair crusade against good and decent businessmen just trying to do their jobs.
Morris cut a deal with the DA after he was charged with illegally dumping agricultural waste—prune and peach pits from area canneries—he collects and hauls to the industrial park. There the waste is dried and then burned in the on-site cogeneration plant, producing cheap electricity.
(That cogeneration plant, the Covanta-owned POPI, is itself currently under investigation by the DA’s office for alleged environmental offenses.)
A majority of the county supervisors, Bill Connelly, Steve Lambert and Kim Yamaguchi, agreed that the DA had gone too far. They voted down the request.
Connelly, who represents the Oroville area stricken with the cancer cluster, accused Thomas of using a “gotcha” style of prosecution and said he’d heard from a number of other local business owners who’d also been caught in the DA’s wide net of environmental prosecution.
Ramsey eventually tapped his own budget to pay for Thomas’ commute, and the special prosecutor still works out of the Oroville office. His contract with the county is up for renewal in January, and he will most likely continue to work here.
Since that May meeting, CEB has posted a Web site and taken out advertisements in the Chico Enterprise-Record and Oroville Mercury Register asking locals to “Share your story and take a bold stand against the politics of fear.”
They’ve drafted a Sacramento attorney named Lance Daniel to run against Ramsey, who’s up for re-election next year. Daniel, a former prosecutor in the Sacramento County DA’s office, currently has a private practice that concentrates on DUI defense.
When contacted about his plans to move to Butte County, establish residence and run for office, Daniel left a phone message that said he would not make a statement until after he’d declared his candidacy. He added that right now he’s busy in a consumer class-action suit against Home Depot for allegedly selling arsenic-laced lumber to its customers.
The message was intended to suggest, perhaps, that Daniel’s practice goes beyond defending drunken drivers and includes suspected polluters. But in that case, it’s big business, not small businessmen, who are being prosecuted.
Getting sources to talk on the record for this story proved difficult. And repeated calls to CEB resulted in one returned phone message promising an interview that never materialized.
Others connected to the story didn’t want to talk publicly for political reasons (elected officials) or for professional reasons (attorneys who have to go up against Ramsey in court).
The exception, of course, was Ramsey himself, a former reporter who thoroughly enjoys basking in the media spotlight, a trait not lost on his detractors.
“The Citizens for Economic Balance,” reads a message on the PAC’s Web site, “are counting on voters being able to look at Mike Ramsey and see beyond the political posturing and media manipulation—to see the real man who uses fear and intimidation to maintain his cherished position as our county’s district attorney and who substitutes revenue-based prosecutions for fairness and equity.”
Curiously, when you hit the link on that site that says “Who are the citizens for economic balance?” you don’t get any names, just a description: “[A] diverse group of farmers, ranchers, business people, property owners and concerned citizens …”
In fact the only names listed on the entire site (with photos) are those of 72-year-old Morris, 77-year-old Scott and Scott’s daughter, Kim, who serves as the “environmental manager” for her father’s scrap-metal empire, according to the site.
Scott owns four scrap-metal sites in Butte County—one in Chico on East 20th Street across from the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., one off of Highway 99 at the Pentz Road exit, and two in Oroville, including the one in the industrial park.
CEB’s financial disclosure, last updated on July 29, shows it’s received $22,472 in contributions. The group’s treasurer is Kelly Lawler, who’s worked for other local conservative candidates, including Assemblyman Dan Logue, and conservative causes such as the group Accountability for Chico’s Tomorrow, which was involved in last year’s Chico City Council election. That committee was headed up by former Assemblyman Rick Keene and his aide, Cliff Wagner. And Wagner is a paid consultant for Citizens for Economic Balance.
Those who may be members, or at least have attended CEB’s weekly meetings, include Steven Seidenglanz, the owner of the 284-acre Highway 70 Industrial Park. He attended an initial meeting in May, a source told us, and served as the moderator.
“Seidenglanz did most of the talking,” the source said.
Seidenglanz owns the land upon which Scott leached his metals and Morris dumped his ag waste.
Seidenglanz lives in Paradise, has contributed heavily to Republican political campaigns, and has amassed several businesses in Oroville, including a paintball course, a military museum and Surplus City, which sells military-surplus items.
The industrial park was once home to a Louisiana-Pacific plant, one of the aforementioned Superfund sites. The other two sites were the now-closed Koppers wood treatment plant and a switching yard for the now-defunct Western Pacific Railroad.
L-P closed in 2001, throwing nearly 100 employees out of work. About a year later, Seidenglanz purchased the 284 acres and began to rent out the vacant buildings to industrial tenants.
There are now more than 40 companies occupying the 356,000 square feet of buildings on the property, according to a story in the Butte County Economic Development Corp.’s newsletter, penned by its president, Bob Linscheid.
“Steve has made a huge impact on the effort to create jobs locally,” Linscheid noted. “With the Highway 70 Industrial Park property, he’s done a great job filling the park with new employers. I feel confident he will probably double the number of jobs originally lost.”
In other words, Seidenglanz, like Scott and Morris, provides a much-needed service—in this case creating jobs for a chronically depressed city.
Seidenglanz has had his own dealings with legal prosecutions. In 1986 he was indicted on charges of conspiring to steal and resell government property, according to a story in the New York Times.
“The 28-count indictment was part of an investigation into the pilfering of surplus supplies from military bases that began more than a year ago with the indictment of dozens of Marines stationed at Camp Pendleton near here in the selling of stolen goods to Federal agents,” the story said.
At the time, Seidenglanz was the president of an Oroville company called International Surplus Wholesalers, which was then one of the five largest surplus wholesalers in the nation.
It is not clear what came of the indictment, and calls to Seidenglanz were not returned by press time.
For his part, Ramsey accuses CEB of trying to buy its own DA. He says he doesn’t prosecute individuals because of who they are, but rather for what they do.
“They claim they are being unfairly prosecuted,” Ramsey said, “that they are good people and therefore shouldn’t be prosecuted. My response to that is, good people do bad acts. We don’t prosecute either good people or bad people; we prosecute the crimes that people commit.”
He said he’d heard earlier this year that CEB was holding “secret meetings” to gather together people who might have a beef with the DA. He’s spent more than two decades prosecuting people, so it’s probably not difficult to find folks with a grudge.
Ramsey has been challenged for his seat only twice in his long career. He was appointed to office in 1987 following the resignation of Will Mattly and ran for re-election three years later against George Robison, a criminal-defense attorney. Ramsey won that campaign by garnering 72 percent of the vote.
For the next 12 years he ran unopposed for the job.
That’s because local attorneys weren’t willing to oppose him. Many of the lawyers we talked to at the time argued they could make more money in private practice than as DA. And, they said, Ramsey was married to the job, putting in more hours than most are willing to devote.
Then there is the fact that Ramsey is well entrenched in the position and has high name recognition; the most likely candidate to defeat him would be a deputy DA. But the story goes that Ramsey has been choosy about promotions he makes within his office.
In 2002 Chico attorney Dale Rasmussen challenged Ramsey. At that time Ramsey called his challenger “a very nice guy who doesn’t have the experience.” Ramsey argued that a DA must be “a bit of an asshole” to effectively carry out the job responsibilities.
He defeated Rasmussen by taking 59 percent of the vote. He’s not been challenged since—at least, apparently, until now.
“It’s interesting,” the district attorney said, “and also distressing that the people we prosecute are people who don’t want to be called criminal. Of course our quick answer is, ‘Then don’t commit the crime. Then you won’t be called a criminal.’ ”
As for Supervisor Connelly’s accusation of “gotcha” prosecution, Ramsey retorted: “If ‘gotcha’ is catching the criminals in the act and bringing them to the bar of justice, then that is ‘gotcha,’ I guess.”
Ramsey said the three supervisors who voted not to fund Thomas’ traveling expenses have taken campaign money from those who’ve been prosecuted.
Records show that last year Morris Farms gave $500 to both Connelly and Lambert. Covering his bases, perhaps, Scott’s Chico Scrap Metal forked over $1,000 to Lambert and another $1,000 to Lambert’s opponent John Byrne.
“I find it rather amazing,” Ramsey said, “that people who have committed crimes have decided that one way to approach it is to have their own candidate, who I’m assuming would allow them to continue to do business in a polluting manner.”
Part of the problem, he says, is getting people to change their ways and how they conduct their business.
“If it is brought to our attention, we tell them, here is what the law is and here is the endangerment to the public, and you need to stop. Some are very agreeable to do the right thing, and others want to buy their own district attorney candidate.”
One source we talked to said former Chico City Councilman and state Assemblyman Rick Keene had dumped money into CEB. Keene, who is now running for state Senate, said he had not, but that he does support the effort to unseat Ramsey.
Though he doesn’t know him personally, Keene said he met Daniel a few months back at a Republican fundraising dinner at Chico’s Silver Dollar fairgrounds. He called Daniel “a serious candidate.”
“I know a little bit about it,” Keene said of the PAC. “It’s a bunch of guys in Oroville.” He did say he’s known Seidenglanz and Scott for a long time, but not Morris.
And he quickly brought up the case of George Barber, a former California Highway Patrol officer turned Butte County DA investigator.
A few years back, Barber was accused of stopping truckers for minor violations and then selling them his truck-safety DVD. Some, including Keene, called it extortion.
“We had to talk to his commissioner,” Keene recalled, speaking of then-CHP Commissioner Dwight “Spike” Helmick. “We were contacted by the trucking association, who said, ‘This guy is weird.’ He just happened to own a doggone computer program that, if you got it, it would keep you from getting cited.
“Ramsey came to his defense at the time. … Ramsey acted like, ‘Give me a break,’ but I had copies of canceled checks [from truckers]. It all looked pretty doggone shady. Kind of like the Mafia. What’s the difference?”
(An internal CHP investigation determined Barber had done nothing wrong.)
Keene also said he believed Ramsey was motivated in his actions not by a sense of protecting the environment or doing justice, but rather to make money for his office.
“When somebody’s department makes money by prosecuting people, that’s the wrong reason,” Keene said. “Any idea of objectivity is out the window. More shekels for my department.”
Butte County has the state-paid services of an environmental prosecutor because it is the largest county, population-wise, north of Sacramento, and also happens to have some of the most sensitive natural conditions in the state.
“We are at the headwaters of a huge watershed, which also includes the salmon and steelhead runs,” Ramsey said. “Plus we do a lot of work with air pollution, and we are on top of one of the largest aquifers in the world.”
His job, he said, is to prosecute cases.
“When the evidence is brought to us and shows a crime has been committed, whether it is a bank robbery, a sex crime or an environmental-pollution problem, it will be prosecuted.”
As the population increases, he said, issues of whose rights are paramount dominate his caseload.
“You have that continual problem of people screaming that their rights have been violated,” he said. “Well, your rights end at my property line. When you start dumping a bunch of hazardous waste on your property, it never stays, it migrates.”