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Don Rogers: Clouseau with a beard

Don Rogers

A quiet admission about an address error on a drug warrant three years ago has flowered into the most interesting election campaign this spring.

Whether voters see an honest mistake by a deputy serving his rotation undercover or as part of some wider pattern of corruption with a badge may determine who wins the race for Nevada County district attorney in June — dozen-year incumbent Cliff Newell or the chief deputy prosecutor who quit over the kerfuffle that followed, Glenn Jennings.

A new, inexperienced drug task force deputy, unwanted and shunned by a senior officer, thought he’d goofed on his first sealed search warrant. That’s the tale Deputy Jason Mackey told on the stand last week.

Jennings tells another story at candidate forums, as a red flag he’d never before encountered with a far darker spin, if vague. Mackey came to him outside court with his confession about the warrant mistake and asked Jennings to drop the case, which the prosecutor did and later refused to sign off on a subsequent investigation of the deputy.

Defense attorneys have seemed to leap for bait that might get their clients off. Dirty cop? Sure. Doesn’t have to be true. Just the suggestion might work. Sow some doubt, kick some dirt, do what you do, part of the job representing your client.

So many whispers, including a juicy false one about the FBI joining in. A yearlong internal investigation that cleared Mackey. A chief deputy prosecutor who quit over this. Revelations of sexual relations with an informant surfacing about the senior officer who disparaged Mackey and eventually quit and left town.

Lots of hot, loose talk about Mackey went awfully quiet when it came to testifying in court. Crickets. The deputy’s cases now under scrutiny are proceeding so far, with convictions in at least two after judges waved off the doubts raised about them.

Lawyers, in their elevated lexicon, call the chirping outside court hearsay. Regular folks know it as plain gossip.

The rumors seem to roost most directly with the detective who left the Sheriff’s Office, Mark Hollitz. The District Attorney’s Office dismissed 13 of Hollitz’s cases, including eight felonies, tainted by what prosecutors called an “undisclosed, inappropriate relationship” with the informant and using her to “set up” another informant who refused to work with him, along with improper destruction of Sheriff’s Office records about his informants. Seems the DA isn’t all that protective of sheriff’s officers, after all.

Hollitz steadfastly declined to refute those claims throughout a 90-minute interview with one of our reporters. Again, crickets at the opportunity to defend himself, set things straight, if there were something to set straight.

Among the defense attorneys, I think I see a faint waning in vague expressions of righteous outrage about corruption — to what end is left open — in favor of more productive questioning in a current quest to invalidate one of Mackey’s warrants: A discrepancy between Mackey testifying last Friday he hadn’t seen marijuana plants during an air surveillance, but turning in an affidavit in 2015 declaring he had. Photographs he took during the flyover show no images of marijuana.

Well, there’s a couple of plain facts to work with. No extra drama necessary. A good, no-nonsense judge who has heard plenty of spin from prosecutors and defense counselors alike will cut through the rhetoric.

Perhaps the starkest difference between incumbent Newell and ex-chief assistant Jennings lies in their takes on Jason Mackey: corrupt liar or innocent bumbler?

The rest of it is the rather pedestrian local campaign talk we’ve heard before and will hear far into the future, no doubt. Challenger fluffs up perceived weaknesses. Incumbent leans on a “great record.” And so it goes.

The judges in this case, the voters, will follow their guts for the most part.

Another pesky fact is Nevada County has the lowest crime rate among its neighbors. There it is, whether an accident of what’s actually a pretty great community or thanks entirely to the dedication of our law enforcement and judicial efforts.

For further empirical perspective, Mackey finished his full rotation around average among task force officers with 75 percent of his cases carrying through to their conclusions and a quarter dropped.

And an irony of note: A task force supervisor had ordered corrections on the warrant in question before Mackey sent it to the judge for signing. The deputy’s copy did not reflect the corrections, but what the judge saw and sealed did include them.

That’s right, none of this drama would have ensued had the actual warrant been checked.

And so we end, for now, with the bumbling deputy thinking he’d made an error, but he was mistaken.

Don Rogers is the publisher of The Union, The Wildwood Independent and Truckee Sun. He can be reached at drogers@theunion.com or 530-477-4299.


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