October 10, 2012
Assistant District Attorney Stephanie Hulsey sat behind thousands of pages of documents in inches-thick binders at the Monterey County Superior Courthouse Tuesday, where she began to lay out the prosecution's case against former Monterey County Water Resources Agency director Steve Collins.
Collins faces 42 criminal charges, mostly concerning allegations that he erroneously billed his former employer Ocean Mist Farms. Conflict of interest charges pertain to work Collins did for RMC Water and Environment, a contractor on the Regional Water Project.
A year after the DA filed charges, Collins' preliminary hearing began on Tuesday, and Hulsey presented much of the case against Collins to Monterey County Superior Court Judge Pamela Butler.
Most of the six hours in the courtroom were spent poring over evidence—invoices, video and audio clips of board meetings, emails and notes from telephone calls—and discussion about which items could be admitted as evidence.
Attorney Michael Lawrence, who's representing Collins, argued against accepting certain information into the court record; overwhelmingly, Butler allowed documents to be presented.
He objected to information regarding conversations between Collins and California American Water President Rob McLean. According to Hulsey, Collins asked Cal Am to help him get paid after the RMC contract came to light and he had trouble collecting what he was owed.
Lawrence also laid out some of his key defense arguments, namely that because the parties to the Regional Project—the county, Marina Coast Water District and Cal Am—all were satisfied with the outcome of Collins' work championing the project, there was no conflict.
Lawrence also argued that Collins received erroneous advice from county attorneys, who assured him there was no conflict.
Salinas Valley Water Coalition director Nancy Isakson was first to publicly raise alarm bells about Collins' alleged conflict, but her opinion was based on the same faulty legal opinion, Lawrence said.
"There is no legal relevance to what somebody in the Salinas Valley Water Coalition thinks about some legal issue," Hulsey said in her objection.
Butler accepted the evidence, but told Lawrence, “You’re certainly climbing up a legal hill.”
Lawrence also said government code on conflicts of interest shouldn't apply to the Water Resources Agency, because most of the board appointees are obligated to represent agriculture. "The agency board is slanted," he said. "It’s not a neutral board. It’s a board that by statute is slanted towards agricultural interests.
"If the board is slanted, it does comprise members that have definite interest."
Collins is also under active investigation by the California Fair Political Practices Commission. His civil lawsuit against the county of Monterey, alleging defamation, was thrown out in September.
The preliminary hearing continues Thursday; follow the highlights live on www.twitter.com/sarahayleyrubin.