A California judge has ruled that ballots cast in a Gerawan Farming union decertification vote in 2013 should not be counted, a decision that will be appealed to the state"s Agricultural Labor Relations Board.

Mark Soble, administrative law judge for the board, found Fresno-based Gerawan committed unfair labor practices and that the California Fresh Fruit Association violated law when it provided $20,000 to fund a pre-election trip to the board in Sacramento by Gerawan employees.

Gerawan is a member of the association, but its president Barry Bedwell said there was no conflict of interest and that he was not in contact with Gerawan during the trip.

"This was requested by members who had nothing to do with this case," he said. "We had received advice on the free speech implications that we should be able to support this. We were transparent. The real question is, does anybody believe that the transportation somehow influenced the overall vote of 2,000 workers? The only way to understand their true intent is to count the ballots. That"s where we"ll continue to push."

"There is powerful circumstantial evidence to suggest that the company knew about this donation beforehand," Soble wrote.

Gerawan attorney Ron Barsamian said the funding from the trade group should have been treated as more of a side issue.

"The payment to the decertification petitioners to go to Sacramento was from a source outside Gerawan and may be a technical violation," Barsamian said. "But it also fails to consider the fact that they were going anyway. The money didn"t make them decide."

The judge advised the board to consider whether a May ruling by a state court of appeals that struck down mandatory mediation – asserting the provision improperly delegates authority to mediators – should impact its final decision.

That could open the door to presenting evidence of abandonment of workers by United Farm Workers, Barsamian said. That did not happen in the hearing before Soble.

UFW became certified at Gerawan Farming in 1992. No collective bargaining agreement was established and negotiations ended in 1995. The union contacted the company in October 2012, seeking to resume talks – and sparking a series of controversies.

"That means the board now has to decide whether to reopen this case to allow evidence of abandonment," Barsamian said.

The 192-page ruling is wide ranging and questions the credibility of testimony by several UFW organizers, including the union"s national vice president, Armando Elenes. The judge found conflicts of interest, for example, in the presence of UFW organizers among employees at Corralitos Farms, another high-profile labor case. The cases had some witnesses in common.