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‘A waste of taxpayers' money’: Sheriff's lawyer questions nature of county probe into Batmobile case

County attorney: “We’re not trying to undo or derail or shape the investigation but to understand how we got to where we are.”
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A Batmobile replica

As the investigation continues into the now notorious “Batmobile” case, the attorney hired to represent outgoing Sheriff Carlos Bolanos is alleging that the County Board of Supervisors has interfered with the legal authority of its district attorney’s and sheriff’s offices. 

The board last month contracted with former Alameda County Superior Court Judge Winifred Smith to conduct an independent probe into Bolanos’s sanctioned raid of an Indiana businessman who makes and sells 1966-era Batmobiles, and the subsequent criminal charges brought by District Attorney Stephen Wagstaffe’s office. 

The board also asked the State Attorney General to begin an inquiry into the criminal investigation and prosecution of the car-maker, but on Wednesday, the AG declined to take the case citing it did not find a ‘compelling need’ for oversight from the state Department of Justice.

James Touchstone, a lawyer representing Bolanos, called the county’s investigation "politically minded” and “a waste of taxpayer money.”

“I question the timing of the so-called investigation into the sheriff’s activities when we still have a pending investigation,” he said. “To me, it appears to be designed to back the sheriff and the DA off from this case, which is improper.” 

Touchstone said Bolanos had been “very forthcoming” and cited an Aug. 8 letter Bolanos sent to the entire sheriff’s office detailing his involvement in and reasons for pursuing the case. 

In contrast, he accused the county of ignoring his request for information and cited a Sept. 1 letter sent to County Attorney John Nibbelin, in which Touchstone wrote that the “legal basis for such an investigation has not been disclosed to Sheriff Bolanos.”

Nibbelin disagreed with Touchstone’s characterization.

“There’s nothing the investigation would do that would result in any kind of interference with the sheriff’s investigatory authority under California law,” he said, adding that state law permits some oversight of law enforcement activity. “We’re not trying to undo or derail or shape the investigation but to understand how we got to where we are.”

ABC7’s I-Team broke the story in late July, reporting that Atherton realtor Sam Anagnostou had recruited the sheriff to investigate an alleged “theft by false pretense” after the $210,000 Batmobile that he ordered was delayed. Mark Racop, the Batmobile maker and owner of Fiberglass Freaks, in Logansport, Indiana, said that Anagnostou did not complete a payment and stopped communicating for several months.

In August, facing an investigation led by Judge Smith, Bolanos sought permission from the county to retain his own legal counsel, at taxpayer expense. Touchstone’s services cost $255 per hour, for a total amount not to exceed $25,000, according to a contract between the county and law firm Jones & Mayer.

Though the county could have denied Bolanos’s request and assigned him a lawyer, Nibbelin said he ultimately understood the sheriff’s concerns about conflicts of interest.

“While arguments could be made that he’s incorrect, I determined that it was appropriate to grant him his request in this case,” he said. 

Nibbelin said that the sheriff could, in theory, seek a writ in the superior court to try to bar the county’s investigation, though he doubted such action would be successful. Though he said he didn’t have any reason to believe Bolanos would seek legal recourse, he added: “We’d be prepared to deal with it, if it happened.”

Touchstone said he was “not prepared” to discuss whether he and his client would take legal action against the county in light of its investigation.

However, in an extensive five-page Public Records Act request submitted to the county attorney late last month, Touchstone asked for all documentation of communications among board members, county employees and members of the public regarding the investigation of Bolanos and Wagstaffe. He also requested documents pertaining to the budget and authority of the board to conduct an investigation of the sheriff, as well as any documentation of allegations of misconduct against the county, members of the board and the county manager. 

Asked whether his client would continue to cooperate with the investigation in the meantime, Touchstone said that was up to Bolanos.

“That will ultimately be the sheriff’s decision,” he said. “We’ll just have to see.”

Wagstaffe, who has not sought outside legal counsel, said in an email that he requested “four follow-up investigative steps to be completed” before deciding whether to pursue or dismiss the case against Racop. He declined to specify what those steps are. 

Wagstaffe said he expected the sheriff’s office investigator to submit the report to his office in the next couple of days, at which point he would discuss the findings and then announce a final decision.

Racop, the Batmobile-maker, is scheduled to appear in court for an arraignment on Sept. 30.


Leah Worthington

About the Author: Leah Worthington

Leah, a Menlo Park native, joined the Redwood City Pulse in 2021. She covers everything from education and climate to housing and city government. Previously she worked as the online editor for California magazine in Berkeley and co-hosts a podcast.
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