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Following evidence disclosure failures that got local prosecutors kicked off the largest mass murder case in county history, an audit has called on Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas to improve staff training and add a formal oversight structure for significant cases.
The performance audit, which was commissioned by the DA’s office amid an impending audit by the county, found that overall the office is performing at a “high level.”
But it notes that Rackauckas’ office is significantly behind other local counties when it comes to the level of training provided to prosecutors.
Newly-hired prosecutors in Orange County attend a three to four day class on basic legal issues, while their counterparts in Los Angeles County and Ventura County are offered two to four weeks of classes, according to the report.
“Our interviews corroborate our conclusion that the Office could benefit greatly from a more robust new attorney training program focusing both on educating these attorneys on the nuances of criminal [sic] not learned in law school, but also to develop their practical skills such as jury selection, opening statements, cross-examination, etc.,” the audit report states.
There also hasn’t been enough training of existing prosecutors, including supervisors, it suggested.
“Only through training and experience are many attorneys able to become effective supervisors. Our interviews revealed that very few supervisors have received any formal training,” states the report, by the Pasadena-based firm Altmayer Consulting.
Additionally, major cases – like those involving jailhouse informants – should have greater oversight by a team of high-ranking prosecutors, including District Attorney Tony Rackauckas himself, through a formal “major case committee,” the audit found.
“It is critical for the organization to create formal structures and checkpoints that allow Executive Management to provide oversight on critical issues,” the report states, noting that Los Angeles County has such a committee.
And the report found that supervisors over the DA’s prosecutors lack a formal job description, which should describe “key expectations and provide basic structures and practices to ensure those expectations are being met.”
“Few supervisors held regular meetings within their unit which many deputy district attorneys cited as an acute weakness,” the report adds. “These attorneys stated that the failure to have regular meetings within their unit limited their opportunity to troubleshoot important issues, seek peer support or even gain a better understanding of office-wide issues.”
The performance audit comes after the DA’s office was barred from prosecuting the penalty phase of the trial of Scott Dekraai, who shot and killed eight people in Seal Beach in 2011.
Rackauckas’ prosecutors repeatedly withheld evidence from the defense, in violation of disclosure requirements established by the U.S. Supreme Court, Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals said in his ruling.
The judge described the prosecution as “a comedy of errors,” with the DA’s team overseeing repeated instances of evidence violations in which at least one deputy district attorney and two sheriff’s deputies lied or withheld evidence from the court.
While Rackauckas has consistently denied intentional wrongdoing on the part of prosecutors, he told the Orange County Register that he will be part of a panel that reviews all new cases that involve jailhouse informants.
“I may not have to be doing this for years to come, but I certainly want to be involved in it for the time being,” he told the Register.
Meanwhile, the defense attorney who uncovered the disclosure violations said Rackauckas has yet to truly hold his staff accountable.
“Mr. Rackauckas minimized the severity of the informant problems since they were uncovered … and has not taken any action against anyone who lied or concealed evidence. His increased role is hardly a reason for celebration in the criminal justice system,” Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders told the Register. “This is just more window dressing by an office unwilling to take responsibility for what they’ve done.”
The recent audit of the DA’s office was originally scheduled by the county Board of Supervisors, with the review to be conducted by the county government’s performance auditor.
But DA officials refused to cooperate with the county auditors, instead opting to hire Altmayer Consulting, a firm that was previously contracted by Rackauckas’ office for evaluations in 2000 and 2007.
In their news release announcing the audit report, DA officials suggested that a review by the county auditor could be subject to “undue influence by county government and politics.”
It didn’t elaborate further, though Rackauckas’ chief political rival, Supervisor Todd Spitzer, serves as chairman of the body that the county performance auditor reports to, the Board of Supervisors.
While making recommendations regarding oversight and training, the audit report did not include an analysis of why the Dekraai evidence violations took place.
Additionally, the audit doesn’t address whether any internal processes need to be changed in light of a federal appeals court ruling that the DA’s office violated due process rights when it declared people to be gang members and restricted their rights without allowing an appeal.
The DA’s office recently had to pay out a $4 million court-ordered payment to the ACLU for attorney fees in the gang injunction case.
District Attorney spokeswoman Roxi Fyad declined to specify why these issues weren’t addressed in the audit.
The auditing firm’s president, Tom Altmayer, also declined to comment, citing a policy of not publicly discussing his work unless asked to do so by the client.
DA officials have also declined to say how Altmayer was chosen for the recent audit, including whether a bidding process was performed.