A long-sealed Stanislaus County Civil Grand Jury report, released this week, finds Turlock City Councilwoman Mary Jackson did not violate common law conflict of interest laws by failing to recuse herself from Dec. 9, 2008, and Jan. 13 appeal hearings for the Vintage Lounge piano bar conditional use permit.
“Through interviews and document review, the Civil Grand Jury found that no financial nor common law conflicts of interest existed on the part of the Turlock City Council Member,” reads the report.
First news of Jackson’s potential conflict of interest broke Jan. 21, when a confidential city memo was leaked to the Journal. The memo, dated Dec. 3, 2008, and penned by City Attorney Phaedra Norton, stated that Jackson “may have a potential common law conflict (of interest) given the relationship you (Jackson) share with Mr. (Axel) Gomez,” and advised Jackson to step down from the hearing. Jackson participated in the hearing against Norton’s advice.
Gomez was the attorney of record for the Vintage Lounge piano bar until just days before the Dec. 9 appeal hearing, when Jonathan Carlson stepped in, and also served as either Jackson’s campaign manager or a member of Jackson’s campaign committee, according to differing sources. The Grand Jury investigation found that the Vintage Lounge attorney of record was not Jackson’s campaign manager.
The Grand Jury’s investigation of Jackson’s alleged conflict first came to light on Feb. 4 when a confidential citizen complaint form was leaked to the Journal.
“Councilmember Jackson clearly voted in a matter loyal to the project, Mayor John Lazar, and campaign manager Axel Gomez,” reads the complaint form. “Councilmember Jackson voted against the public’s best interests by twice casting lone votes in a manner against the recommendation of the Turlock City Attorney and in an irresponsible manner which would have drawn Turlock into costly litigation.”
While the Grand Jury cleared Jackson of committing any illegal behavior, writing that her, “actions at no time compromised the good standing of the Turlock City or City Council as a whole,” the report did side with Norton’s advice that Jackson ought to have stepped down from hearing the Vintage Lounge issues.
“Often the perception of wrongdoing is greater than the offense itself. This appears to be the case here; wherein no actual wrongdoing was found to exist, the perception of wrongdoing does (exist),” the report reads. “… (Jackson) should have recused herself to avoid any perception of wrongdoing.”
To prevent future conflicts of interest from arising at the Turlock City Council, the report makes several suggestions for modifications in City of Turlock policy.
The report calls for the Turlock City Attorney to maintain and distribute up-to-date materials on Common Law and Financial Conflict of Interest doctrines to all elected and appointed officials on a biannual basis. Additionally, the City Attorney is recommended to maintain a log that contains signature verification that the conflict of interest documentation has been received.
Jackson was pleased to learn that the Grand Jury had confirmed her innocence, which she has loudly proclaimed since first learning of the investigation.
“The civil grand jury report clearly confirms what I’ve been saying all along,” Jackson said, “it exonerates me from doing anything wrong, the perception of a conflict-of-interest was not the majority of Turlock citizens but a few people who are politically motivated.
“I will continue to follow high standards and hold the rest of our city officials to the same standards. Again, I will not be silenced from the job I was elected to do."
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