Mayor's TV claim tells just one side

04/25/2003 10:05 AM

11/20/2007 6:23 AM

Modesto Mayor Carmen Sabatino has appeared on three national television news shows this week to share his opinion that Scott Peterson cannot get a fair trial in Stanislaus County.

But none of the shows mentioned that Sabatino is under criminal investigation by the same authorities who would fight an attempt to move Peterson's trial.

"It wasn't up to me to bring it up," Sabatino told The Bee on Thursday. "Whenever (TV people) are ready, I'm ready. Let them put it on the table."

District Attorney James Brazelton said his investigation of Sabatino should wrap up "within the next month or so." Search warrants have indicated that prosecutors suspect grand theft, embezzlement and using public resources for personal benefit.

Sabatino appeared Monday on "Fox on the Record with Greta Van Susteren," Tuesday on "Dateline NBC" and Thursday on NBC's "Today." In each appearance, he said it might be difficult to find fair-minded jurors locally, though his stance changed somewhat Thursday.

Peterson has been charged in the deaths of his wife, Laci, and their unborn son, Conner. Many people have speculated that defense attorneys will ask to move the trial, something Brazelton has said that prosecutors would oppose.

Brazelton and his office have been investigating Sabatino with help from Sheriff Les Weidman. Investigators have searched 18 places, seizing potential evidence from the mayor's city office, his downtown restaurant, his home, his car and his wallet.

On "Today" on Thursday, Sabatino jabbed at Brazelton, saying that Peterson "hasn't even been tried yet, except, apparently, by the district attorney." Co-host Matt Lauer, like Van Susteren on Monday and NBC reporters on Tuesday, did not mention the mayor's struggle with the same man.

Sabatino said he is not hiding anything. In a letter to the editor of The Bee dated April 18, Sabatino complained bitterly that Brazelton and Weidman are pursuing a "political hit job" at the urging of his enemies, in an attempt to foil his re-election bid in November.

Sabatino also charged his foes with "rounding up various government agencies to do their bidding."

Thursday, Weidman and Brazelton said that claim is false, and Brazelton repeated a statement that he made previously that state Attorney General Bill Lockyer had asked the district attorney to investigate the mayor.

"All of these allegations of politically motivated stuff is absolutely ridiculous," Brazelton said.

Of the investigation, Brazelton said it "has proceeded as rapidly as it can, and we expect to be able to bring this to a conclusion as quickly as possible, within the next month or so. At that time, the mayor will have ample opportunity to respond to whatever the findings are."

Brazelton added: "It's interesting that (Sabatino) sends this (letter to the editor) on city taxpayer-purchased letterhead."

Superior Court Judge Roger M. Beauchesne has prevented The Bee and the public from seeing a 133-page affidavit supporting investigators' request for a search warrant in the Sabatino probe.

Though Beauchesne two weeks ago said he would unveil a portion of the affidavit on Thursday, an appeal by Brazelton's office prevented that from happening. Court officials refused to release the edited version pending word from the state appellate court.

In his TV interviews, Sabatino said Peterson would not get a fair trial in Modesto because "of the level of emotion that's present in the city." The mayor said volunteers who helped search for Laci Peterson "surely might not be a good jury."

On "Today," Sabatino repeated the thought but also said, "We have reasonable people in our community who could possibly sit in a jury and listen to the facts dispassionately and make a decision."

He told The Bee that he has heard business owners complain about the loss of potential profit should the trial be moved.

In two of the interviews, Sabatino praised local officials for dealing admirably with other high-profile cases of missing women who later turned up dead. He pointed out the murders of three Yosemite sightseers and the slaying of Modesto native Chandra Levy in Washington, D.C.

"I'm there to defend the city," Sabatino told The Bee Thursday. "The real story is how this city has responded to all these tragedies."

Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at 578-2390 or gstapley@modbee.com.

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