Jeff Jardine

Recall campaign against district attorney: For real, or just saber-rattling by former mayor?

Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager greets John Dyrseth during her election night party at Greens on 10th Street in Modesto June 3, 2014.
Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager greets John Dyrseth during her election night party at Greens on 10th Street in Modesto June 3, 2014.

If you drove along the 400 block of McHenry Avenue in Modesto last weekend, you might have seen an electronic sign next to Sabatino’s Ristorante bearing the words “Recall Fladager.”

No surprise that it was next to Carmen Sabatino’s restaurant; he has been Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager’s harshest critic during her 10-plus years in office.

Nor should it surprise anyone who knows Sabatino that the sign encroached on a state highway right-of-way – McHenry Avenue doubles as Highway 108 from Five Points near downtown until it veers toward Riverbank nearly six miles to the north. Or that no one obtained a permit from Caltrans to put it along the highway. Being a former mayor, you’d think Sabatino understands the state’s jurisdiction when it comes to McHenry and highways 99 and 132 as they go through Modesto.

The electronic sign disappeared Monday before a Caltrans manager arrived to tell him to remove it. No matter. Its message caught a few eyes.

When it comes to railing against things and people he doesn’t like, no one can match Sabatino. When he isn’t railing against the DA, he’s railing against The Bee. He simply loves to rail.

Sabatino ramped up his invective against Fladager in 2015 when his former attorney and friend Frank Carson was among nine people arrested in connection with the murder of Korey Kauffman. But that wasn’t the first time.

Sabatino’s intense skewering of Fladager and anything to do with her office dates back at least to the 2003 election when, as a one-term former Modesto mayor running for re-election, Sabatino faced 11 felony fraud-related charges. He maintains that the charges represented nothing more than a political maneuver engineered by his enemies, including former county Supervisor Ray Simon and County Counsel Mick Krausnick. Sabatino claims the case served their purpose, preventing him from winning a second term.

Sabatino’s trial – the charges were filed while Jim Brazelton was the district attorney – ended in a mistrial with the jury hung on all 10 counts (one original count was dropped). Carson defended Sabatino. Brazelton retired in 2005 with a year remaining in his term and before the case concluded. He died in 2007.

Fladager, fresh off of a huge win in the Scott Peterson case, ran to replace Brazelton in 2006. She won, and was about to be sworn in as DA when Sabatino’s case ended.

She chose not to retry the case.

In the ongoing Kauffman case, Sabatino and some others believe Fladager filed the murder charge against Carson simply because he challenged for her job back in June 2014. But the investigation of Carson actually began in 2012 – a year before he filed to run against Fladager. In the 2014 election, she beat Carson with roughly 70 percent of the vote. He wasn’t arrested until 14 months later.

The preliminary hearing – to determine whether any or all defendants should stand trial for the charges – has dragged on more than 15 months and is on hold until February because the prosecution has repeatedly failed to turn over evidence (discovery) in a timely manner to the defense teams. The judge admonished Fladager for not personally being in the courtroom to answer for her department, and a few days before Christmas released Carson and the other defendants who had remained in custody to that point.

Not that he needed any additional motivation, but that latest series of events gave Sabatino yet another opportunity to attack the DA. Hence, “Recall Fladager” in lights.

So I called him Wednesday morning to ask if the sign was just a bow shot or is he really preparing to circulate a real petition for recall? It’s certainly within his rights to do so, and at a time when the DA appears most politically vulnerable.

Sabatino, who frequently calls The Bee to talk to reporters, told me I “disrespected” him by even calling him. Then he hung up on me, though he followed up with an email about an hour later. He rambled and ranted and, naturally, railed. I didn’t waste my time with a re-call.