Photo by John Schreiber.
Photo by John Schreiber.

Orange County supervisors on Tuesday approved a $40,000 contract with an expert to overhaul a watchdog department for the Orange County Sheriff.

Michael Gennaco, a principal of OIR Group, who is perhaps best known locally for helping Fullerton police investigate the in-custody death of transient Kelly Thomas, was hired on a 3-2 vote to prepare a report making recommendations on oversight of the county’s law enforcement agencies. Gennaco, who started work today, will be paid $10,000 a month until year’s end.

The move stems from the board’s dissatisfaction with the Office of Independent Review, which was established in February 2008 following a rash of excessive force and other types of misconduct in the Orange County Jail, most notably the beating death of an inmate accused of possession of child pornography.

Too often, some supervisors have complained, they were getting more information from local newspapers than they were from the Office of Independent Review.

The board nearly defunded the department in June, which caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice, which has been reviewing the jails for several years. That prompted the board to keep Stephen Connolly, the agency’s leader, on the job through the end of the year with a $17,500 monthly salary.

“We’re getting our information through means and channels that are not appropriate,” Board Chairman Todd Spitzer said, referring to complaints from the public and newspaper reports.

“We’re supposed to get our information in different ways, earlier, faster and, most of the time, under confidentiality,” Spitzer said.

The decision to keep Connolly on the job was made, in part, because he has the backing of Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who has praised the job he has done.

“This board has an excellent relationship with the sheriff,” Spitzer said. “She’s had an outstanding career here… And I’m not about to enter into a hostile relationship with the sheriff unless I have to.”

Hutchens said she welcomed the move to hire Gennaco because any sort of oversight agency provides the public with confidence in law enforcement.

“Do we have people who make mistakes and people who have misconduct? Yes, and I will root that out, but it’s good for the public to know that it is no just the sheriff policing her organization,” Hutchens said.

“We had a model eight years ago that a Board of Supervisors approved, and now we have a new Board of Supervisors today and things change, so it may be time to review and see what is best for Orange County,” Hutchens said.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson wanted Gennaco to promise he would not help Connolly get a new post elsewhere or would even give the departing county official a positive job reference.

Gennaco said he couldn’t do that.

Supervisors Michelle Steel and Nelson voted against the Gennaco contract. Nelson was the lone vote against the new contract with Connolly, who was making $210,000 annually plus expenses.

An attorney with the Justice Department emailed the county last month to alert officials the federal government was watching the county’s moves to establish a new independent oversight agency for the sheriff.

Hutchens assured the board that the Justice Department’s monitoring of the jails is nearly complete.

“We’re doing things right in the jail, and they have been looking at our jail for quite some time, and we’re really down to just one deal,” Hutchens said.

The board’s move to revamp the Office of Independent Review “caught their attention and they wanted to keep the file (on the county’s jails) open a little longer,” Hutchens said.

“But I am very confident in the job the men and women do in our jails… We’re not overcrowded, we have good medical care in our jails… But they can come in and find a milk carton that wasn’t picked up in five minutes and say this is not a clean jail and decide to put you under a consent decree for that and a variety of reasons.”

The county’s jailers have come under fire by the Orange County Public Defender’s Office, most notably in the case involving the worst mass killer in the county’s history, Scott Dekraai.

Dekraai’s attorney, Scott Sanders, convinced a judge to have Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ office removed as prosecutor in the capital case, a ruling that is under appeal.

Sanders has alleged a widespread conspiracy to violate the constitutional rights of inmates with the use of jailhouse snitches to solicit damning statements from others in custody.

Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals, who ruled to remove the District Attorney’s Office from the Dekraai case, cited testimony from sheriff’s deputies that he found to be untruthful.

— City News Serive

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *