California Valley board president cleared of election fraud

California Valley
California Valley Matt Fountain

Six felony charges filed against the board president of the California Valley Community Services District stemming from complaints she did not live in her district were thrown out by a judge Wednesday.

Lisa Marrone, 57, was facing charges including voter registration fraud, filing a false declaration of candidacy, perjury by declaration and offering a false instrument for recording.

In his ruling, San Luis Obispo Superior Court Judge Craig van Rooyen stopped short of declaring Marrone’s California Valley residence her “fixed habitation,” but said that there was insufficient evidence to prove “knowing falsity” necessary for a criminal conviction. Van Rooyen added, however, that he didn’t blame the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office for investigating the complaints and deciding to file charges.

“People can see that she has long-standing ties to the community,” van Rooyen said. “I think it’s a close call, but reasonable minds can disagree.”

The ruling was van Rooyen’s first in a publicized case since he was appointed to the bench by Gov. Jerry Brown in June after serving as a prosecutor for nine years with the San Luis Obispo County DA’s Office.

“I feel that I’m not only innocent but that I’m a victim in this case,” Marrone said following the hearing. “I’m very thankful to Judge van Rooyen for making his decision.”

Over the summer, the DA’s Office, acting on complaints from two other members of the California Valley CSD board and information provided by the County Clerk-Recorder’s Office, sent an investigator to interview Marrone, her board colleague Misty Lambert and other community members. According to court documents, the investigator found that while Marrone owns property in California Valley, it was not her “domicile,” which is defined as the place in which a person’s habitation is fixed.

In September, the DA’s Office filed charges against both Marrone and Lambert, who prosecutors contend lives in the South County area. Lambert, 42, has also pleaded not guilty and is due in court for a pre-preliminary hearing on Nov. 8.

Both are running for re-election to the CSD board next month, a packed race in which Marrone, Lambert, and co-director Ro Webb are facing six challengers. The two board members who filed complaints with the DA’s Office — Prince Frazier and George Ayres — are not up for re-election this year.

Marrone has been on the board since 2012, following a short stint in the late 1980s.

In a brief filed in court Thursday, Marrone’s attorney, Barry Kinman, argued that his client’s domicile is a home on Belmont Trail, within the district, which is insured as her residence. She has lived on various properties within the district since 1983, he previously told The Tribune, but also owns a rental property in Paso Robles, which has a leased tenant and is insured as a rental.

Kinman said that Marrone’s business, Mobile Oil Changers, requires her to work six to seven days a week in the North County area and sleep on a cot in the garage of the Paso Robles property to save money and time. He said that she returns to the valley a couple times a month in order to attend meetings and maintain her property.

In a motion on Monday, the DA’s Office argued that while Marrone frequently returned to the property, it was not her fixed habitation, which “would require residing in the residence daily over a period of time.” The motion states that Marrone knew she was not entitled to register in the district, and falsified documents and perjured herself when she voted in the June primary election and filed a Declaration of Candidacy in August.

Following the ruling, Assistant District Attorney Lee Cunningham, who prosecuted the case, said the facts of his office’s investigation indicated Marrone had committed fraud.

“Although we disagree with the judge’s ruling, law is rarely black and white, and reasonable minds can disagree,” Cunningham wrote in an email. “As Judge van Rooyen indicated in his ruling, he understands that the case had to be investigated and why we proceeded with the case.”

Marrone’s attorney, Kinman, said in response that the DA’s Office failed to properly investigate the matter, basing his findings on three interviews with Marrone.

“In the first one, he lied to her about the purpose of the interview. In the other two, he keeps telling her she broke the law. … He literally never asks her a question,” Kinman said Wednesday.

Kinman has said the motivations behind the prosecutions are political; Cunningham disputes that allegation.

“It was highly unusual, in my mind, and unprecedented to try my client via a press release,” Kinman said, referring to a statement released by the DA’s Office after charges were filed in September.

Asked about whether the ruling will affect the ongoing case against Lambert, Cunningham said her case “involves a different factual scenario” and “will be evaluated on its own merits.”