Inquiry targets sheriff's actions
Attorney general will investigate Peace Fresno complaint.
By Diana Marcum
The Fresno Bee
(Updated Tuesday, June 22, 2004, 7:19 AM)
The California Attorney General's Office is investigating alleged undercover surveillance of Peace Fresno by the Fresno County Sheriff's Department last year, an episode at the forefront of a clash between personal liberty and expanded law enforcement in a terrorism-wary country.
"We're grateful to the attorney general," said Mark Schlosberg, police practices policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. "We're hopeful we'll find out what really happened."
When Fresno County sheriff's deputy Aaron Kilner died Aug. 30 in an off-duty motorcycle accident, his picture ran in The Bee, with the Sheriff's Department identifying the 26-year-old officer as a member of the anti-terrorism unit.
Members of Peace Fresno recognized him as a man who had said his name was Aaron Stokes and for months had attended meetings, sitting in the back taking notes and going to peace rallies.
Kilner never identified himself as an officer.
After Kilner's death, Sheriff Richard Pierce would not say whether Kilner had attended meetings. He said Peace Fresno was not the subject of an investigation but released a statement:
"For the purpose of detecting or preventing terrorist activities, The Fresno County Sheriff's Department may visit any place and attend any meeting open to the public."
Monday, Pierce said he stood by his previous statement and welcomed Attorney General Bill Lockyer's review.
"We'll have any conversation that the attorney general requests, absolutely," he said. "I'm perfectly comfortable with the policies and procedures in that [anti-terrorism] unit."
Pierce said he is unlikely to ever discuss with the media whether Kilner attended the meetings or why he would have been there.
Pierce also would not answer specific questions about Kilner from the ACLU or Peace Fresno.
The California Constitution gives the attorney general jurisdiction over law enforcement practices that affect individual constitutional rights. Lockyer's office will have access to all records and direct supervision of deputies.
If the attorney general determines that criminal conduct occurred, the matter will be turned over to the Fresno County District Attorney's Office for potential prosecution.
Schlosberg, the ACLU attorney, said the unusual way in which Peace Fresno members came to suspect they were infiltrated by a government agent makes the case unique.
"Usually it takes a very long time for these things to surface. We're just now finding out about government spying that took place in the '60s and '70s," he said."We've had reports of mosques being watched and political groups monitored, but this is the most blatant and immediate example."
The investigation is in response to more than 1,200 faxes and letters asking Lockyer's office to look into the alleged scrutiny of Peace Fresno.
The decision was announced in letters sent to each individual who contacted the Attorney General's Office, the bulk of which arrived in mailboxes this week.
California law provides more protection for individual rights than federal policies implemented under the Homeland Security Act in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. An internal FBI bulletin that advised local law agencies to monitor anti-war activities was leaked in November.
"The attorney general has been very concerned with activity we've seen at the federal level," said Hallye Jordan, a spokeswoman with Lockyer's office. "From the start, he's been very conscious of weighing the constitutional rights of citizens with the need to protect citizens from terrorists. It's a delicate balance."
She said she has no idea how long the investigation into the Peace Fresno incident might last. The outlines of the inquiry are broad and include the Sheriff's Department's intelligence gathering and record retention policies.
The inquiry is not related to another ongoing case in which Pierce last month asked the Attorney General's Office to look into other matters concerning his department, including his consulting work with a private security company.
Nicholas DeGraff, vice president of Peace Fresno, said news of the Peace Fresno investigation was met with relief and gratitude by the organization's members.
"We want to get everything out on the table. We think it will show there needs to be a policy shift on how we're fighting the war on terrorism," DeGraff said. "We believe there's a way to protect security and freedoms."
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