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Criminal charges dropped against local ballet company; civil suit filed

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Posted: Wednesday, November 14, 2001 10:00 pm

The highly publicized case against a local ballet company and its founders took another unlikely turn Tuesday when the District Attorney's Office dropped

criminal charges against Ronna Roberts of Lodi and her partner, Alexei Badrak.

The prosecuting district attorney, Franklin Stephenson, has now filed a civil suit on charges of unlawful competition and misleading statements.

Roberts' International Ballet Theatre Institute came under investigation in May 2000. The issues were apparently resolved last May when Roberts entered a plea bargain with the DA's office.

But Stephenson said Roberts then failed to comply with the terms of her plea, and therefore the case was reopened by Judge K. Peter Saiers on Aug. 8.

The extent of the fines that Roberts now might face is not yet clear, but could total over $200,000, Stephenson said.

Roberts' lawyer, Jeffrey Hirschfield, said the actual dollar figure in question, which he claims cannot be attributed to Roberts or Badrak, is around $800.

Hirschfield said Roberts is the victim in the case and that she is having her name slandered.

"This was basically a smear campaign. She's like the victim of a witch hunt," Hirschfield said.

Roberts viewed the dropped criminal suit as a step in the right direction. "This is definitely a positive note," she said, "I believe in the criminal justice system and justice will be served."

But Stephenson is not willing to admit that the decision to drop criminal charges is a concession. In fact, he sees it as an aggressive action.

"The civil suit allows us to stop the criminal activity sooner," Stephenson said. "We're not saying that what they did is any less egregious. We're just pursuing it in a different forum."

However, Hirschfield said the move was a strategic act, possibly due to a lack of confidence in the criminal case.

"By doing a civil suit, the DA lowers the burden of proof. The byproduct is that Ronna will no longer have access to a public attorney."

Unlike criminal cases, defendants are not entitled to public defense in civil suits. Roberts does not have the means to hire her own attorney, and therefore could be left to represent herself in a civil case.

However, Hirschfield said he intends to stay involved in the case.

"There is more to this case than meets the eye," he said.

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