Crime

Merced County Supervisor faces criminal battery charge in misconduct investigation

Merced County District 1 Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza, 50, participates along with other Merced County area officials in a groundbreaking ceremony for the second segment of the Campus Parkway Project, which aims to improve traffic between Highway 99 and the UC Merced campus, on Thursday, July 26, 2018, at the intersection of Campus Parkway and East Childs Avenue in Merced.
Merced County District 1 Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza, 50, participates along with other Merced County area officials in a groundbreaking ceremony for the second segment of the Campus Parkway Project, which aims to improve traffic between Highway 99 and the UC Merced campus, on Thursday, July 26, 2018, at the intersection of Campus Parkway and East Childs Avenue in Merced. vshanker@mercedsunstar.com

Merced County Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza has been accused of inappropriately trying to kiss, hold hands with and smell the hair of a woman who met with him in April to discuss county business, according to a report filed by Merced Police Department investigators.

Espinoza is a former mayor of Livingston and a county supervisor whose district includes Livingston, South Merced, Planada, El Nido and others communities in Merced County.

The 50-year-old veteran politician was charged July 20 with a single misdemeanor count of battery in connection with the allegations. Espinoza did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Friday.

According to the police report filed in Merced County Superior Court, Espinoza was working in his capacity as an elected official on April 27 when he pursued an unwanted kiss, held the hands of the woman without her permission and smelled her hair.

Police investigators set up a phone call between Espinoza and the woman that they recorded. In the call, Espinoza appeared to blame the woman for the incident. Espinoza reportedly told the woman he felt she’d “(led) him on” by asking to meet with him and inviting him to social gatherings on previous occasions, the report says.

“What am I supposed to think?” Espinoza asked her, according to the report.

The woman was working on an effort to provide health care to undocumented immigrants when she asked the first-term supervisor to meet in her office around 5 p.m. April 27, according to the report.

The alleged victim told police Espinoza had offered to bring alcohol to the meeting at her Merced office. The woman told police the comment struck her as odd but she brushed it off.

The woman said she’s known Espinoza for more than a decade, and they’d met alone before to discuss different issues.

As she faced a computer screen and discussed the county’s budget, Espinoza tried holding her hands and moving in closer, the report said.

She repeatedly told him to stop and that she felt uncomfortable, but he continued to move in closer while trying to kiss her and touching her face, the report says.

She said he pressed his lips against her hair and smelled her, the report says.

“Isn’t that why you call me here for (sic)?” he asked, according to the report.

The woman said she felt unsafe and managed to flag down another employee who happened to pass by her office at the time. She asked the employee to come in. She said Espinoza and the man spoke for a few minutes in her office and then left together.

Once she was alone, she locked her office door and contacted her supervisor. She reported the incident to at least two of her supervisors, as well as her husband, according to the police report.

Merced County officials on Friday were reluctant to comment on the matter or say whether the criminal case would create a conflict of interest between Espinoza and the Merced County District Attorney’s Office, which gets its funding through the board of supervisors.

The District Attorney’s Office had no opinion on the question, according to Rob Carroll, the chief deputy district attorney.

“We treat every case that comes to us the same,” he said. “We look at the report and if we feel there’s a crime that’s been committed and we can prove it, we charge the case.”

Merced County CEO Jim Brown provided a statement by email. “I have been made aware of the complaint. The alleged incident is not reported to have involved our employees or facilities, which would entail administrative action. However, as reported, this is a personal matter that is up to the legal system.”

District 5 Supervisor Jerry O’Banion said he’d “heard rumors” about an incident with Espinoza but was not aware of the filed charge on Friday.

“As far as I’m concerned that’s personal business at this point,” he said in a phone interview. “I’m sorry there’s a situation. Hopefully, he can work through it.”

There did not immediately appear to be a conflict of interest, according to District 2 Supervisor Lee Lor.

“My initial reaction is I’d like to know the details of what he’s being charged with,” she said. “And, know what he has to say.”

“Unwanted behavior is always a no-no,” she said. “You should treat folks how you want to be treated.”

Espinoza won his seat on the board in 2016, defeating incumbent John Pedrozo. Before that, Espinoza had been mayor of Livingston since 2010. He is married with children.

The criminal charge is not the first controversy in Espinoza’s two-year tenure. He drew the ire of Merced’s Jewish community after sharing a disparaging video on his Facebook page that purports to describe a decades-old conspiracy about Jews. An expert confirmed to the Sun-Star that the conspiracy is commonly passed around among extreme right hate groups.

Espinoza pushed back against the criticism, saying he is not racist and called the video “interesting.”

Espinoza is set to appear in court on Aug. 28, according to court records.

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