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California attorney general candidate faces ethics panel

By The Associated Press
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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Steven Bailey, a former judge now running for California attorney general, is facing a judicial ethics tribunal just two months before the November election.

Bailey, a Republican who served as an El Dorado County judge from 2009 through August 2017, is accused of using the job to aid his political campaign, improperly accepting gifts and steering business to a firm where his son worked.

Three special masters from the Commission on Judicial Performance on Tuesday begin considering the allegations, which Bailey says "simply lack merit" and are the result of political gamesmanship.

The hearing in Sacramento creates another hurdle in Bailey's uphill battle to unseat Democratic incumbent Xavier Becerra, who was appointed last year by Gov. Jerry Brown to fill a vacancy and now is seeking a full four-year term.

Becerra easily won the June primary with 46 percent of the votes. Bailey advanced to the runoff by finishing second but was 21 points behind.

No decision is expected from the commission until well after the Nov. 6 election. Bailey could be publicly admonished even though he no longer is a judge but he can't be disqualified from the attorney general's race.

"Judge Bailey initially expressed interest in running for attorney general because of the office's recent trend toward hyper-partisan politics to the detriment of public safety," James Murphy, one of Bailey's attorneys, said in a statement to The Associated Press. "We question if this inquiry is nothing more than a politically motivated and brazen attempt to sabotage his campaign."

He denied that Bailey's actions interfered with his judicial impartiality and blamed inadvertent errors for several of the allegations, including that Bailey provided a written testimonial for a political survey company.

The commission is deciding whether to discipline Bailey over claims of conduct "that brings the judicial office into disrepute" and of "willful misconduct in office" — the harshest charge and enough that it could have prompted his removal if he still was on the bench.

One of the allegations is that for a year Bailey improperly used his judgeship to raise funds and promote his candidacy for attorney general. Bailey says that he retired months before filing his formal declaration of candidacy in February and that the board is infringing on his constitutional right to free speech and to run for office.

He is also alleged to have repeatedly ordered defendants to use an electronic monitoring service without disclosing that his son worked at the company providing it or that the company's owner was a friend who worked on his 2008 judicial campaign. The commission also alleges that he ordered a defendant to pay $140 in restitution in 2009 after a letter signed by the judge's son said the man owed that amount for electronic monitoring.

Bailey says he followed the ethics advice of other judges that he did not have to routinely disclose the relationship with his son, and that the owner was a "professional acquaintance" with no real involvement in his campaign. He says the monitoring company was approved by the county probation department, as required by law, and that he arranged to have a second, competing company also provide monitoring services.

Bailey also is accused of accepting hundreds of dollars in gifts between 2009 and 2012, including nearly $350 from a Placerville attorney. The commission says he appointed the same attorney to oversee a case in 2011 at the unusually high rate of $350 an hour to be paid by the defendant, without disclosing the attorney was a friend.

He denied failing to report or falsely reporting travel-related payments and reimbursements, saying he believed all the gifts were permitted.

He also denied that he was showing bias by telling another judge in response to a compliment about a shirt that he got it from a "gay guy" and that "gays really know how to dress."

The hearing before one appellate judge and two Superior Court judges appointed by the state Supreme Court is expected to last until Sept. 14. They then have about 60 days to report their findings to the commission. Both sides may respond to that report in writing and in an oral argument before the commission.

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