The U.S. attorney’s office is back into the political crimes business in Orange County and elsewhere in Southern California, reports Los Angeles Times veteran investigative reporter Scott Glover, who broke the story this weekend after getting his hands on a confidential staff memo from U.S. Attorney Andre Birotte Jr.
The lack of political investigations in Orange County by the district attorney’s office has garnered attention throughout the political community in recent years. District attorney’s office officials say that a 1996 court decision severely limits their ability to look into political crimes.
A similar unit in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California — which includes Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties — that was supposed to investigate such cases, including politicians and police officers accused of crimes, was disbanded two years ago by former U.S. Attorney Thomas P. O’Brien.
Earlier this year, the issue blew into the public discourse when a union leader publicly accused Assessor Webster Guillory of criminal wrongdoing in front of the county Board of Supervisors. District attorney’s office officials complained about the approach, and the union leader acknowledged that there is doubt about the district attorney investigating politicians.
After a month-long review, the district attorney cleared the assessor and criticized Orange County Employees Association General Manager Nick Berardino for voicing the allegations publicly.
The Times’ June 12 story said Birotte wrote in a memo to his staff that “the public needs to be able to rely on federal law enforcement to act as a watchdog for public institutions and the individuals who hold positions of trust in those organizations.”
The U.S. attorney’s office prosecutes federal crimes and can prosecute state offenses if local officials are unable or unwilling to act. In the past, they’ve handled numerous civil rights cases when local officials refused to prosecute. In the 1970s and ’80s, they worked closely with the Orange County district attorney’s office on a series of political bribery, campaign money laundering, and federal income tax and Medicare embezzlement cases involving prominent state political figures and local elected leaders.
Last year, the U.S. attorney’s office convicted former Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona of witness tampering. Carona was acquitted of more criminal counts in the case.
And in interviews after the trial, jurors said that they believed Carona had illegally accepted cash and gifts but that they were stymied by a statute of limitations that allowed them to consider only acts committed after late October 2002.
Yet since that time, prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office have themselves come under fire in a slew of cases for what some judges called unethical behavior by prosecutors.
— TRACY WOOD AND NORBERTO SANTANA, JR.