District attorney officials this week provided details of their efforts to add nearly a dozen paralegals by next month in response to serious disclosure problems impacting more than a dozen criminal defendants whose constitutional rights were allegedly violated by local prosecutors.
Prosecutors have come under heavy fire over the past six months for failing to inform defendants and their lawyers, in a timely way, of information gathered against them through use of jailhouse informants.
Orange County’s Performance Auditor also is apparently gearing up to look into the management of the district attorney’s office in the wake of the scandal.
The lack of disclosure became a contentious point in the criminal defense of Seal Beach mass murderer Scott Dekraai, with his defense attorneys raising troubling issues about the jailhouse snitch program.
While Judge Thomas M Goethals upheld the DA’s pursuit of a death sentence for Dekraai, he also took aim at District Attorney Tony Rackauckas for the lack of disclosure on such high-profile cases.
“The events associated with the current hearing do not constitute the District Attorney’s finest hour,” he wrote in a 12-page opinion earlier this month.
In a press conference following the opinion, Rackauckas said the disclosure problems were largely tied to overworked prosecutors, who were handling too many cases.
That drew a sharp response from County Supervisor Todd Spitzer – seen as a future challenger to Rackauckas – who said supervisors had granted the local DA every budgetary request he asked. Spitzer called out Rackauckas saying he should own up to his failings as a manager and not blame budgetary pressures.
Rackauckas’ Chief of Staff, Susan Kang Schroeder, fired right back at Spitzer saying he was taking advantage of the situation for political gain.
Yet earlier this week, Rackauckas publicly wrote county supervisors advising them of the added paralegals and acknowledging their strong budgetary support for public safety.
“Over these last fifteen years, through both economically prosperous times and even through the recent recessionary years, I believe the county has fulfilled its public safety funding obligation,” Rackauckas wrote on Aug. 11 after Spitzer’s public challenge.
Rackauckas noted in his letter how problems stemming from the Dekraai case had prompted prosecutors to come back to county supervisors in June to seek approval for the extra paralegals, which he got.
“I became aware of workload issues impacting our ability to perform our mandated duties, including discovery issues in the homicide and gang units. In consultation with prosecution unit managers, I developed a cost effective remedy to address these workload issues. Specifically, the addition of 10 paralegals coupled with a plan to evaluate operations after the paralegals were in place to determine if even more resources were needed to meet our legal mandates,” he wrote.
“This is so laughable,” said Spitzer this week in an interview about the letter.
“They didn’t do this because they made a self assessment and needed to make sure everyone is following their legal and ethical obligations,” Spitzer said. “They are doing this because they got caught.”
The question, Spitzer asks, is “who the hell is managing over there?”
“I have had to comply with discovery myself as a prosecutor,” said Spitzer, who once worked in the DA’s office. “Complying with discovery is very, very difficult. It’s very burdensome. And while it’s very helpful to have a paralegal assisting with that, they’re not off the hook just because it’s delegated to a paralegal.”
Spitzer said the issues lead him to conclude the district attorney’s office is facing a serious problem.
“It’s a failure of management to properly use resources,” Spitzer said. “A failure from the chief of staff (Kang Schroeder) all the way down.”
“I would expect there should be a serious discussion,” Spitzer said, acknowledging the performance audit.
“It will be very important for our performance auditor to go in there, ask questions and evaluate the performance and efficiency of the DA’s office,” he said.
Spitzer is aiming squarely at Rackauckas’ Chief of Staff, Kang Schroeder.
“It’s a lack of experienced people in those positions. When you have a chief of staff who’s never prosecuted a felony overseeing the allocation of felony resources and allowing a prosecutor to have 80 cases and then blaming that on a lack of resources, that’s the problem.”
Schroeder said Spitzer is simply making an issue out of nothing, shamelessly attempting to use a tragedy to promote his campaign for DA.
“It just proves that this is about him campaigning for DA,” Kang Schroeder said.
She noted that when Rackauckas mentioned at a press conference mistakes being made because attorneys were overworked on clerical tasks, he was simply offering taxpayers realtime feedback. He wasn’t picking a fight with county supervisors.
“We’ve never blamed any supervisor for anything,” Kang Schroeder said. “This is not about him.”
Rackauckas’ chief of staff said her boss had already stood up and taken responsibility acknowledging that one prosecutor “shouldn’t have had that many cases…mistakes were made.”
She said Spitzer had highjacked the issue for pure political gain.
“He’s making this about him,” she said. “You would think he would be on the side of the prosecutors. Its not a management issue, it’s a campaign issue because that’s what he’s making it about. He shouldn’t exploit mass murders for political gain.”
You can reach Norberto Santana Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @NorbertoSantana.