SCWW-GC case becoming mired in legal motions, pleas entered by judge

May 20, 2016
Santa Paula News

With the case becoming mired in legal motions Superior Court Judge Kent Kellegrew entered not guilty pleas on behalf of Santa Clara Waste Water–Green Compass and its CEO after defense attorneys continued to object to an earlier ruling to remove their firm as counsel in the case. In addition, Kellegrew took the unusual legal step of seeking an opinion from the Appellant Court before the trial proceeds to avoid appeals regarding his recusal of the attorneys after the fact.

The not guilty pleas entered by the judge were the first pleadings in the case, which was filed in August; of the original nine defendants only two have entered pleas to being guilty of lesser charges. 

Santa Clara Waste Water-Green Compass was the scene of early morning November 18, 2014 explosions and fire that left firefighters and plant workers injured and dozens of others seeking medical treatment for toxic exposure. The incident also prompted an evacuation over a wide area and warnings to residents beyond to shelter in place due to what officials described as a “toxic plume” that stretched for miles. There was a massive response of county, stated and federal agencies — the latter including the EPA and FBI — and the area around the facility, located on Mission Rock Road west of Santa Paula, was ordered shut down for almost a week. The State of California declared the area a disaster and the exact cause of the explosion and the compound(s) involved — which when dry would spontaneously combust — is still unknown.

At the May 9 court appearance Kellegrew entered not guilty pleas for Santa Clara Waste Water Co., its parent company Green Compass and William Mitzel, the company’s CEO; eight other defendants have also been charged with multiple felony counts stemming from the explosion.

In August a Ventura County grand jury indicted the company, Mitzel and others on 71 felony and misdemeanor counts, including conspiracy to commit a crime, disposal of hazardous waste, committing violations causing injuries, handling hazardous waste with a reckless disregard for human life, creating danger to a community and other charges. 

Defense attorneys have said the explosions resulted from an industrial accident.

“I’ve been reviewing paper even as I’ve taken evidence,” in other matters said Kellegrew May 9 about the motion for appeal filed by defense attorneys with Musick Peeler & Garrett LLP that morning of his May 2 action of recusing the firm from the case. 

The issue centers on whether former District Attorney Mike Bradbury, now in private law practice, obtained interview statements from now defendants — as well as witnesses — that violate attorney-client privileges of those charged in the case by defendants believing Bradbury was representing them at the time of the interviews.

Senior Deputy District Attorney Karen Wold said Bradbury was retained by Musick Peeler & Garrett LLP on behalf of SCWW-GC to conduct an internal investigation into the explosion, which prompted Bradbury’s interviews. Bradbury’s report was finished February 27, 2015, just about three months after the explosions.

At the earlier hearing Barry Groveman, of Musick, Peeler & Garrett, told Kellegrew the defendants knew Bradbury wasn’t their attorney when they were interviewed.

Several attorneys for other defendants do not want their clients’ statements to Bradbury released and fear the implication of their communications on their own cases.

At one point the prosecution had created a storyboard showing links between counsel themselves and then to the various defendants.

According to Wold prosecutors also do not want to see the declarations because it is not public record and could contain attorney-client information they are not supposed to view.

At the May 9 hearing William Carter, also of  Musick Peeler & Garrett requested that the firm be allowed to continue pre-trial work, a suggestion that prompted Kellegrew to note, “Let me review the documents…watching me read is the most boring thing in the world,” so he ordered a recess.  

When court was back in session Kellegrew said the defendants have rights under the Sixth Amendment to a speedy trial and their choice of representation, an issue the Court of Appeal must decide.  

Appealing to the Court of Appeal should make it obvious “This is a pretty important decision that needs to be made soon because defendants charged with a crime are in a case without defense counsel.”

A prosecutor noted that arguments submitted by the defense apply to civil cases and not the criminal charges the defendants are facing and would object to the court issuing a stay in the case.

“I don’t relish the opportunity to go where no one has gone before,” said Kellegrew.

The discussion between attorneys and prosecutors became heated with Groveman stating the prosecution is “biased” and the court was allowing “retaliation” against the defendants. 

Groveman claimed the defense had already removed one district attorney from the case and are investigating another prosecutor.

“This is outrageous!” Wold told the court.

Andrew Krause who represents SCWW-GC Supervisor Kenneth Griffin told the court his client’s statements to Bradbury may now be in possession of Musick Peeler.

“The holder of the privilege” to the statements said Kellegrew is the person who made same.

Kellegrew asked Groveman and Carter who else received information from Bradbury’s reports, a request they declined to fulfill, with one attorney noting they have a confidential shared interest agreement.

Krause asked the court that the statements his client made to Bradbury be turned over to him, a request also made by another defendant’s attorney.

Kellegrew agreed but Groveman said “I disagree…I believe those communications,” are now the property of SCWW-Green Compass.

After more discussion Wold said of Musick Peeler “Counsel has a conflict and cannot represent these clients anymore,” a decision previously made by Kellegrew, but they keep returning on behalf of the defendants. 

Two Santa Paula Firefighters, the first responders to the incident, had to retire because of their injuries; a third SPFD Firefighter remains on leave. The three as well as a Ventura County Fire Firefighter have filed a lawsuit against SCWW-GC and Patriot Environmental Services, whose personnel was on scene at the time of the explosion and later conducted the site cleanup.

Indicted in the case were Board Chairman Douglas Edwards, CEO William Mitzel, Vice President Charles Mundy, Vice President Dean Poe and Supervisor Kenneth Griffin Jr. and Transportation Manager David Wirsing. Two others indicted who earlier pleaded guilty to some of the charges were Mark Avila and Brock “Gus” Baker.

Kellegrew asked Mitzel and George Flack, the spokesman for SCCWW-GC, to return to court on May 24 while all defendants were ordered to appear in court on June 9 for a pretrial/status conference. 

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