Orange County Supervisor Michelle Steel’s suggestion Tuesday to defund the Office of Independent Review touched off a heated debate among law enforcement leaders on what was done to hold sheriff’s deputies involved in the so-called snitch scandal accountable.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer, who helped reform the Office of Independent Review when he was a supervisor, pointed to a Dec. 20 letter penned by his predecessor, Tony Rackauckas, that cleared 10 sheriff’s deputies of wrongdoing. The deputies had some ties to the special handling unit in the jails that utilized informants.
Allegations of improper use of confidential informants to obtain confessions and information in the jails exploded in the case of Scott Dekraai, the worst mass killer in the county’s history, who ultimately pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole when an Orange County Superior Court judge removed the death penalty as an option for prosecutors because of the informant scandal.
Supervisor Doug Chaffee joined Steel’s criticism of the OIR, which is tasked with oversight of the District Attorney’s Office, Sheriff’s Department, Probation Department and Public Defender.
“I’m baffled as to why it’s even here,” Chaffee said. “And why is it under the purview of the board instead of under the internal auditor, which is a more independent source.”
The criticism came during the board’s meeting to discuss the proposed county budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year.
Spitzer offered a history lesson on the revamped OIR in 2015.
“What was going on in court at that time was very monumental but it still remains,” Spitzer said of evidentiary hearings in the Dekraai case. “When I came into office obviously there were a lot of allegations against deputy sheriffs testifying untruthfully. Well, unbeknownst to me, there was a letter clearing those deputy sheriffs before I assumed office.”
Spitzer asked the OIR to review the letter clearing the deputies of wrongdoing and offer an opinion on whether he could revisit the issue.
The OIR could not review the letter because it was not part of its current duties, Spitzer said.
“But before you might consider the fate of the OIR in this county I will tell you it is a very important oversight function,” Spitzer said. “My office needs that oversight.”
Spitzer said it was “very troublesome” to him that Rackauckas made the decision despite the objections of senior executives in his office.
What was at issue was whether deputies still employed should be put on so-called “Brady Lists,” a reference to the law that requires prosecutors to turn over evidence to defense attorneys. When deputies are put on the list defense attorneys are alerted.
In the Dec. 20 letter to then-Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and current Sheriff Don Barnes, Rackauckas said 10 deputies were investigated for their ties to the special handling unit.
“After a careful review of the recommendations made by OCDA staff, and as the District Attorney of Orange County, I have decided NOT to open a Brady investigative file on any of the above named OCSD personnel,” wrote Rackauckas, who had been defeated the prior month by Spitzer in his bid for re-election.
Rackauckas wrote that his decision was not affected by the Attorney General’s Office’s decision to not pursue criminal charges against sheriff’s deputies or prosecutors involved in the Dekraai case.
At that time it was not known the Attorney General’s Office had decided to drop its investigation without charges.
That revelation came in April in a relatively minor drug possession for sale case in the North Justice Center courthouse where Dekraai’s attorney, Scott Sanders, was again pushing for more records of deputies in the special handling unit on behalf of his current client Oscar Galeno Garcia. A deputy attorney general revealed the probe was concluded under questioning by an Orange County Superior Court judge.
Rackauckas’ letter outraged Sanders, who called the investigation by the District Attorney’s Office a sham and vowed to make it an issue in Garcia’s case.
“Spitzer and his people never told the truth how they were making Brady determinations,” every time a request was made of deputies involved in the Garcia case, Sanders said. “No evidence has been turned over on any special handling deputies.”
Spitzer “wants to criticize Rackauckas, but what did he do?” Sanders said. “When he saw it was a sham, what did he do?”
Spitzer responded that, “I’m the one that brought it to the attention of the OIR, so I’m obviously reviewing and rewriting the Brady manual for the office… (Sanders) has no clue that I’m actually trying to fix and get to the bottom of all these systemic issues that were under 20 years of Rackauckas.”
Spitzer accused Rackauckas of clearing the deputies as “payback” for their union backing him in the election.
Rackauckas said in an email to City News Service that there were “dozens of meetings and memos written” on whether some deputies should be placed on the “Brady index,” and “some were.”
Rackauckas said he made the “final determination” after meeting with his chief assistant Jim Tanizaki.
“My judgment was that there was insufficient evidence to put them on a Brady list should there be litigation concerning the matter,” Rackauckas said. “My judgment was based on the evidence I had, but should a new district attorney and his chief assistant feel differently they have full authority to put the deputies on their Brady list.”
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