Two California Valley Community Services District directors accused of felony election fraud over their disputed residency in the community have pleaded not guilty to several felony charges, with an attorney for one saying the case was politically motivated by “malcontents” on the board.
Lisa Marrone, 57, and Misty Lambert, 42, were charged Sept. 13 by the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office’s public integrity unit. They are accused of felony voter registration fraud, filing a false declaration of candidacy document, perjury by declaration and offering a false instrument for recording.
The DA’s Office said it received complaints that Lambert and Marrone were serving on the board but not living in the district. Following an investigation, prosecutors found that while Marrone owns property in California Valley, it is not her domicile, which is defined as the place in which a person’s habitation is fixed, Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham previously told The Tribune. The DA’s Office contends that Lambert lives in the South County area.
Marrone entered not guilty pleas Thursday. Lambert entered her not guilty pleas Monday and was represented by San Luis Obispo County public defender Patricia Ashbaugh. Ashbaugh requested that attorney Jim Royer, who also works for the Public Defender’s Office, be appointed to represent Lambert and later referred all Tribune questions to Royer.
Royer, who likely has not yet met with his client, did not immediately return a request for comment Monday.
On Sept. 22, Marrone’s attorney Barry Kinman sent a letter to Cunningham saying prosecutors “made a terrible mistake” in filing the charges. Kinman wrote that Marrone’s domicile is a home on Belmont Trail, within the district, which is insured as her residence. Marrone also owns a property in Paso Robles, which has a leased tenant and is insured as a rental, he said.
Kinman told The Tribune that Marrone’s business, Mobile Oil Changers, requires her to frequently work seven days a week in the Paso Robles area, and that she often sleeps on a cot in the garage of the Paso Robles property “to save time and money and to avoid constantly commuting to California Valley.”
Marrone has long had a P.O. box address within the district, Kinman said, and all of her identification and registration lists that address. He said that she returns to the home a couple times a month in order to attend meetings and maintain her property, which she has long considered her domicile.
“This is a classic example of government intrusion into someone’s daily life,” Kinman said. “The person who chooses their domicile is that person, not the government. There is no precedence for this case.”
However, Kinman said that since 1983 Marrone has claimed a homeowners’ property tax exemption — an exemption of up to $7,000 off a property’s assessed value available if the home is a principal place of residence and is not vacant or a rental — at the Paso Robles property and hadn’t transferred that exemption to the Belmont Trail property.
The San Luis Obispo County Assessor’s Office confirmed that Marrone transferred the exemption to the Belmont property on Monday. A clerk there who processed the transfer said it is common for assessees who own more than one property to go years without properly transferring the exemption to their primary residence. In certain cases, the office may issue a statutory penalty that includes a percentage of a property’s assessed value for failing to transfer an exemption.
The clerk said that Marrone’s situation did not fit the requirements and no penalty was issued.
“She should have transferred the exemption in 2001,” Kinman said. “But the Assessor’s Office had the ability to issue a fine, and they didn’t even do that because, as they told me, (the violation) is as common as dirt.”
Asked about the charges, Kinman said the felonies were politically motivated and could “ruin these women’s lives.” Both women and fellow director Ro Webb are up for re-election in the Nov. 8 general election and face six challengers.
According to Kinman, the DA’s Office began investigating the case after complaints by George Ayres and Prince Frazier, two California Valley CSD board members that records show are political rivals of Marrone and Lambert.
Minutes of board meetings going back to December 2015 show that when support for agenda items was not unanimous, members mostly split 3-2 with Marrone, Lambert and Webb on one side, and Frazier and Ayres on the other.
At an Aug. 2 board meeting, the board majority successfully voted to censure both Frazier and Ayres for allegedly violating the Brown Act on open government meetings. Frazier and Ayres voted against their censures.
“What on earth was the DA thinking, siding with two political malcontents?” Kinman said.
Ayres did not return a request for comment to the phone number listed on his campaign disclosure forms Monday. Frazier confirmed that he and Ayres filed complaints against the two board members with the DA’s Office “over a year ago” but denied the complaints were politically motivated.
“They have never lived there,” Frazier said. “I have no ax to grind with them — we just listened to residents in the area who wanted us to do something.”
Cunningham on Monday declined to comment on who made the complaints. He disputed Kinman’s claims, however, saying the cases were not politically motivated and were referred to the DA by the County Clerk-Recorder’s Office.
“It is inappropriate for me and Mr. Kinman to publicly discuss the facts of these cases (while they are ongoing),” Cunningham said.
The crimes each carry a maximum penalty of three years in County Jail; the crime of perjury by declaration carries a maximum of four years in jail.
The CSD is scheduled to hold a board meeting Tuesday night. Kinman said Marrone will ask the board to schedule a special meeting to discuss the issue. Frazier said he would attempt to block the two from attending the meeting given the ongoing criminal case but did not provide specifics.