Merced County sheriff candidate Soria admits to lying in 2006 criminal probe

Sheriff candidates Frank Swiggart, Pat Lunney, Vern Warnke and Jim Soria, far right, face off during a debate in Atwater earlier this month. Soria’s three opponents all said they believe his past raises credibility questions.
Sheriff candidates Frank Swiggart, Pat Lunney, Vern Warnke and Jim Soria, far right, face off during a debate in Atwater earlier this month. Soria’s three opponents all said they believe his past raises credibility questions. bahbeck@mercedsunstar.com

During a recent debate, when Merced County sheriff candidate Jim Soria was asked if he had ever “been documented as untruthful,” Soria said he wasn’t sure what the questioner was talking about.

“I don’t know where you’re getting your information from,” Soria replied, in front of an Atwater audience during the April 17 debate.

But public records show that Soria, a former Dos Palos police officer, lied to sheriff’s deputies in 2006 during a criminal investigation. If elected sheriff, his background almost certainly would preclude him from making any arrests or testifying in court, according to multiple law enforcement experts.

Further, when contacted earlier this week by the Sun-Star, Soria admitted lying as a police officer during an official probe into his conduct in 2006. Soria and another Dos Palos police officer were under investigation for failing to arrest someone charged with a crime.

Soria admitted that he lied to investigators at least three times and eventually left the Dos Palos Police Department. He was convicted of a misdemeanor. The conviction was later expunged from his record.

“I was wrong. I made a mistake,” Soria said in a telephone interview.

Also, county elections officials this week said Soria failed to file any campaign finance disclosure forms. Soria acknowledged raising “about $2,000” since declaring his candidacy in January, but because no paperwork has been filed that figure could not be verified. He said Thursday he plans to file his campaign’s finance documents.

Trouble for prosecutors

When asked, Merced County District Attorney Larry D. Morse II said Soria’s documented lying and the expunged criminal record would create issues for prosecutors if he were elected sheriff.

In a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case, Brady v. Maryland, justices ruled that prosecutors must disclose to the defense any information that could possibly affect the outcome of a criminal trial, said Jerry Coleman of the San Francisco County District Attorney’s Office. Coleman is an assistant district attorney and the chief of the Brady Appellate and Training Division in San Francisco. Coleman did not comment on Soria’s history.

The ruling also forces prosecutors to notify the defense whenever an officer in a case has a documented history of purposely lying in an official capacity, according to multiple legal authorities in California. Officials agreed that prosecutors would be forced to disclose the history of lying, even when that person had his or her criminal conviction expunged, as Soria’s was in 2011.

“Given the 2006 incident he would have have to be (Brady listed),” Morse said. “We’d be ethically bound as prosecutors to do so. It’s nothing personal against Mr. Soria, it’s a matter of the law. Convictions can unravel under these circumstances.”

Soria’s three opponents in the race, Pat Lunney, Frank Swiggart, and Vern Warnke, all said they believe Soria’s past raises credibility questions.

Morse has endorsed Lunney’s campaign for sheriff.

Mark Zahner, executive director of the California District Attorneys Association, said that generally, any peace officer who lied in a formal investigation would have credibility issues for the rest of his or her career, calling it “classic Brady Material,” a phrase used to describe exculpatory evidence.

John Abrahams is the vice chairman of the California Public Defenders Association legislative committee and a former public defender of more than 20 years in California. Generally, he said, disclosing that an officer has a history of lying is “the heart and soul of the Brady issue.”

Madera County District Attorney Michael Keitz said lying is legally defined as “moral turpitude” and is “generally grounds for dismissal” for law enforcement employees.

‘Did not want to get in trouble’

Just before midnight on March 1, 2006, a 54-year-old man wanted on a misdemeanor warrant turned himself in to the Dos Palos Police Department. The man was intoxicated, and turned himself in to then-Officer Soria and another officer, according to a Merced County Sheriff’s Department report.

Soria and the other officer refused to make the arrest. Instead, the report says, the officers drove the drunken man to an empty parking lot several miles outside of town. The officers then used the man’s cellphone to contact the Sheriff’s Department. The report says Soria’s partner attempted to “disguise” his voice and told sheriff’s dispatchers to pick the man up in the parking lot. The officers then drove away from the area, leaving the man alone with a bottle of whiskey, the report says.

When questioned about the incident by sheriff’s detectives, Soria initially denied involvement in refusing to make the arrest. He changed his story later and admitted his role after detectives told Soria they had proof of his involvement, the report says.

“I asked Officer Soria why he had this elaborate lie and just had not told me the truth from the beginning. Officer Soria told me that he and (the other officer) did not want to get in trouble,” the report says.

Soria told the Sun-Star he’s a changed man who learned his lesson. He said he does not believe the incident will affect his candidacy for sheriff or his ability to run the Sheriff’s Department, if elected.

“That was eight years ago,” Soria said. “I don’t plan on making the same mistakes.”

Soria pleaded guilty on April 25, 2007, to a misdemeanor count of willful failure to arrest a person charged with a crime. He was sentenced to three years’probation, 90 days in jail and 80 hours of community service, court records show. Soria has said the jail time was converted to community service. The conviction was expunged in 2011, according to Merced Superior Court records

Denies credibility issues

Despite his documented lies to law enforcement, Soria denied having any credibility issues with voters. He called his past a “closed issue.”

If elected, Soria said, his past would not be an issue for the mostly administrative role of the sheriff and would not affect the day-to-day operations of the Sheriff’s Department. “How often does the sheriff make arrests? How often does he testify? Never,” Soria said.

However, it’s not unheard of for a sheriff to make an arrest. During Mark Pazin’s tenure as sheriff, he made arrests, including taking a wanted escapee from the Stanislaus County Jail into custody, with the help of two deputies who responded as backup, in 2007.

Soria’s criminal past, if he were elected, might not be well received by those in the department.

A sheriff with a documented history of lying could create morale issues for the rank-and-file deputies, according to the Merced County Deputy Sheriff’s Association.

The deputies union has endorsed Warnke for sheriff. The union did not comment directly about Soria.

Phil Brooks, the union president, said “any sheriff” with credibility baggage would likely undermine public confidence in the whole department.

“In general, we want all our supervisors held to the same standards we are held to,” Brooks said. “Obviously public perception is a big part of morale and if the public perception is whether the sheriff can be trusted then, yes, that absolutely affects the whole department.”

Lying would also most likely disqualify someone from being hired for an entry-level patrol position, authorities confirmed.

Merced Sheriff Tom Cavallero did not specifically comment on Soria. Cavallero was appointed to complete Pazin’s final term and has declined to endorse any of the candidates.

Commenting in general about the qualifications for working in the Sheriff’s Department, Cavallero said, “We have to be able to trust our employees. If they have any access to the sheriff’s office, dishonestly is going to create a huge concern.”

Sgt. Keith Rakoncza of the Stanislaus County Sheriff’s Department said lying would likely disqualify an applicant from becoming a patrol deputy.

Corruption claimed

Soria claims he was prosecuted only because the Merced County Sheriff’s Department and Merced County District Attorney’s Office “failed to investigate” wrongdoing in the Dos Palos Police Department by the police chief and officers.

Soria called himself a “whistleblower” who tried to expose “corruption” at the department in 2006, which he said triggered a well-publicized grand jury investigation. The 2006-07 grand jury report Soria referred to outlined numerous allegations of misconduct at the department, but it never triggered any prosecutions, authorities confirmed.

If county authorities had prosecuted senior members of the Dos Palos police in 2006, Soria said, he would not have failed to make a court-ordered arrest and would not have lied.

“I’m not saying I didn’t lie in the investigation, but if I hadn’t brought up the wrongdoing (in Dos Palos), they never would’ve prosecuted me,” he said. “The sheriff failed me. The district attorney failed me. The system failed me.”

Morse brushed off Soria’s comments.

“That’s insulting and just plain stupid,” Morse said. “To say that we prosecuted him because we didn’t want to investigate some alleged corruption in Dos Palos is half-baked and nonsensical. I know he’s got to come up with something, but that’s pretty weak.”

There are conflicting accounts of whether Soria lodged his complaints before or after he was suspended. It’s also unclear how much weight Soria’s complaints carried in the grand jury report.

Soria said it would be up to Merced County voters to decide whether his history of lying disqualifies him from being sheriff. He said voters would also have to decide whether he was telling the truth about whistleblowing.

“I’m not trying to just change the subject. I know it’s all about the sheriff in the race, not Dos Palos,” he said. “It comes down to if the voters want me. If they want me, then I’m in. If they don’t want me, I’ll continue on serving on the City Council. I’m a good person. I’m honest.”