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Saturday, Oct. 28, 2006 | A Carlsbad neighbor of U.S. Rep. Brian Bilbray’s mother said he testified before a grand jury that is investigating the congressman’s residency claims and displayed a copy of a related subpoena during a press conference Friday afternoon.
William Rider, who lives several houses away from Bilbray’s mother on Unicornio Street, said he appeared before eight to 12 members of a county criminal grand jury on Aug. 29. He said wasn’t sure how many people were on the panel. Rider said he was asked at the grand jury proceeding whether Bilbray lives at his mother’s address.
“I was told that the focus of the investigation was Brian Bilbray’s domicile, and when he moved there or if he moved there,” said Rider, 61, who is listed as a supporter and decorated Marine Corps veteran on the campaign website of Francine Busby, who is trying to unseat Bilbray in the election.
The subpoena and Rider’s statement are the first pieces of evidence to surface amidst months-old rumors that Bilbray is the target of an investigation by the district attorney’s Public Integrity Unit.
Bilbray’s residency became an issue in May after the San Diego County Democratic Party filed a complaint with the District Attorney’s Office. The complaint, which Democrats publicly trumpeted, alleges that Bilbray may have committed perjury or voter fraud when he claimed Carlsbad as his residence in his official candidacy papers. Bilbray, who also owns houses in Imperial Beach and Virginia, has claimed those homes as his residences in other official documents unrelated to his candidacy.
Candidates who hope to represent California districts in the U.S. House of Representatives need only live within the state to qualify – they don’t have to live in the districts in which they are running. There may be political advantages to living in the district, but Bilbray has said he moved to the Carlsbad residence long before the campaign. He registered to vote at that address in June 2005, only two weeks after a story in The San Diego Union-Tribune detailed questionable property deals that eventually led to the downfall of former U.S. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham.
Cunningham resigned from the seat in November 2005, provoking a special election.
Since Bilbray started running for Cunningham’s seat, concerns about his attachment to North County after decades as a politician in southern areas of the county, have dogged him. Busby’s allegations are the latest reflections of that.
“If anything, I think I brought clarity to the situation to the question of whether there was an investigation into a political matter,” Rider said of his public announcement Friday. “Hopefully, the electorate will be able to make a better decision.”
District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis’ office has repeatedly declined to confirm or deny that an investigation was underway.
“Unless the allegation is clearly without merit, the allegation is investigated, often through the use of the Criminal Grand Jury,” Dumanis wrote in a statement. “It is longstanding office policy not to comment on what is confidentially referred to us for investigation, what we are investigating, or the status of any investigation. Moreover, we are legally prohibited from commenting on grand jury matters.”
Bilbray and his campaign staff have disavowed having any knowledge about a grand jury investigation.
“There has been no communication with us that this is going on and I think that the fact that we haven’t heard anything speaks for itself,” said Curt Bardella, a spokesman for Bilbray’s campaign.
Bardella said the subpoena was only proof that there was an inquiry into an allegation and that “I have no reason to believe, and I have seen no evidence to support, that there is an ongoing investigation right now.”
He credited the District Attorney’s Office for doing its due diligence and questioned the timing of Rider’s decision to come forward with the information 11 days before Election Day.
A retired veterans advocate, Rider said he decided to tell his story after the question of whether or not Bilbray was being investigated once again became a public issue.
On Aug. 12, Busby called on the congressman to disclose whether he’s currently the target of a grand jury investigation. But the Busby campaign couldn’t offer any solid proof that the investigation actually existed.
Rider said he chose not to wait on the grand jury process and spoke up because he thought the issue was of importance to the community.
“What’s wrong with an enlightened electorate?” Rider asked. “Shouldn’t they want to know all of the issues?”
At the press conference, Rider presented a copy of a subpoena, which instructs him to appear before a San Diego County criminal grand jury in late August. The subpoena makes no mention of subject matter of the investigation or Rider’s testimony.
Rider said he believes he was called to testify because he had appeared in a Channel 10 news story about Bilbray’s residency status in May, after the Democratic Party made its initial allegation. Rider told the television station “if he does live here, he must leave late at night and come back early in the morning.”
Rider said he spent more than an hour answering questions with the grand jury. He said he testified that he didn’t think Bilbray lived at his mother’s Carlsbad home because he didn’t see Bilbray, his wife or children there prior to the June 6 election.
He said his testimony was also based on his observation of vehicles parked at the residence and said he only saw cars belonging to Bilbray’s mother or her medical aides in the driveway. Rider said he currently sees other cars at Bilbray’s mother’s house but said he didn’t know what kind of car the congressman drives.
“He may, in fact, live there now,” Rider said at the press conference. “I don’t know that.”
Rider said he was also asked by prosecutors who else might bring clarity to the investigation. He said he assisted the prosecutor with that question but declined to say whether he was aware of other neighbors or individuals who testified before the grand jury.
Before coming forward, Rider consulted his attorney, Guadalupe Valencia, who accompanied him to the press conference. Valencia declined to say whether his client had been admonished not to speak publicly about his testimony but said that grand jury witnesses are typically asked to keep their testimony private. Valencia said he believes Rider’s First Amendment rights permit him to discuss his testimony.
Valencia said he didn’t want to make Rider’s public statement a “partisan thing” or “a rally point for one party or another,” but acknowledged that members of the local Democratic Party had helped to organize the press conference.
Jess Durfee, the chair of the San Diego County Democratic Party, attended the event and said afterwards that “voters of the 50th District have the right to know about this before the election on Nov. 7.”
Durfee said he believed Rider was being honest about his testimony and that Bilbray could probably take legal action if he wasn’t telling the truth.
“I don’t think [Rider] would risk his personal resources in that way,” Durfee said.