Santana: Will OC Supes Expand Office of Independent Review?

While there will be a lot of focus this week on whether county supervisors opt for a countywide campaign finance ethics commission, their most far reaching actions could come Monday morning as supervisors hold a hearing at 10 a.m. to consider expanding their Office of Independent Review to reach beyond the Sheriff’s Department.

Orange County could soon become the first county board of supervisors in California to adopt an oversight model where an auditor reports to them and examines conduct across a wide array of agencies – Child Custody Services, Public Defender, District Attorney, Probation – critical to public safety but often missing from the traditional oversight debate.

It’s also shaping up to be a particularly gut wrenching week for District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and his heir apparent, Chief of Staff Susan Kang Schroeder – whose collective performance (or lack thereof) is the silent star of both films: expanding campaign finance regulation and oversight of law enforcement agencies beyond the Sheriff.

Rackauckas’ operation of an apparently illegal snitch network is quickly blossoming into a national media embarrassment with the New York Times recently calling for a federal investigation into “blatant and systematic misconduct” around the clandestine network.

Prosecutors and sheriff’s officials are accused of coordinating an effort to continue interrogating people accused of crimes secretly while they are housed in Orange County jails by utilizing snitches – criminals who cut deals with officials in exchange for information. State attorney general investigators are reportedly investigating -- and federal officials seem interested in better understanding -- the scheme operated by Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens to systematically interrogate prisoners for prosecutors while simultaneously withholding evidence from defense attorneys.

In the meantime, scores of hardened criminals have been released through plea deals with Rackauckas because cases with connections to the snitch network have been fundamentally weakened.

Conversely, Supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer is in a position to offer a starkly contrasting narrative this week – positioning Orange County into a leadership position among counties in California with a unique county ethics commission and Office of Independent Review.

Spitzer’s challenge will be to cobble together vote majorities for both initiatives while avoiding the perception that he’s using the opportunity to advantage his expected run for district attorney in 2018.

In that aim, Spitzer has been greatly aided by the initial report of options compiled by Mike Gennaco, the former director of OIR in LA County who now works as a consultant assisting public agencies dealing with public safety oversight issues.

Gennaco’s report – which was formally delivered to county supervisors Friday afternoon – offers a nuanced analysis of several law enforcement oversight models – mainly commissions and auditor models – as well as how oversight is approached.

“The same principles that support the continued existence of oversight of the Sheriff’s Department could be used to make a case for oversight of other County Departments that interrelate regularly with the criminal justice system,” Gennaco concluded, backing up Spitzer’s public arguments on the issue when supervisors authorized the Gennaco review a few months ago.

The move to expand the board of supervisors’ investigatory powers has reportedly already triggered concerns from some department heads like Public Defender Frank Ospino, who already sent the board of supervisors a very detailed critique of the proposal, raising a host of legitimate privacy concerns that would have to be addressed in any independent review.

Gennaco has done a good job of framing the different approaches that county supervisors can opt for, even coming up with the novel function of establishing an auditor that can delve into a host of tough issues involving nearly a half dozen large agencies.

The challenge for county supervisors will be weighing whether they want to spend the money needed for that kind of investigative prowess.

Indeed, Gennaco ended his report noting that the board’s appetite for expansion would be directly related to its pocketbook.

“If any or all of the menu options for increased oversight within the Sheriff’s Department or incorporating other County Departments are accepted, it will necessarily mean increasing current staffing of the oversight entity,” Gennaco wrote.

Keep in mind, the county does employ a host of other auditors such as the County Performance Auditor. The Auditor Controller controls Internal Audit and the County Counsel runs the county fraud hotline.

And remember, the current crisis within the Orange County Office of Independent Review doesn’t come from any agency misdeed or systemic problem.

It’s all about budgets.

In the wake of the 2008 Chamberlain jail beating death, county supervisors responded to questions about a civilian review board (a commission approach, typically expensive and politicized) by establishing an auditor position (much cheaper and professional but less transparent).

Yet they sold that four-cylinder engine as a roaring big block V8 to the public.

Many people – even county supervisors – seemed to think they were getting an investigatory agency with public sessions and ability to process public complaints. Even though the budget and staff (one attorney and one staff) were meager – about a half million annually ---by government standards.

When OIR couldn’t unearth a scandal like the snitch scandal, supervisors like Spitzer publicly criticized the agency for failing the board.

Yet county supervisors never paid to build a race car.

They funded a nice, sensible Yugo.

As supervisors enter this discussion, their best approach would be to try as much as possible to strip the politics out of their collective decision making process and think long term.

OIR could be expanded – and the snitch scandal is as likely a candidate as any to start – maybe on a pilot project basis.

County officials already have invested several years in establishing a solid semi-independent auditing model functioning at the Sheriff’s Department.

And while it’s unlikely that Steve Connolly will be back when the current contract expires in December, indications are that the function has won important backers – like State Senator John Moorlach -- based on internal risk management data. Hutchens also has publicly warned supervisors that removing OIR would likely trigger adverse reactions from federal justice department officials.

If a new director is put in place, new agencies could be added to the review process.

Gennaco – in what seems like a public admission that Connolly was seen as too close to Hutchens’ command staff – recommends that the function be moved more directly under the board of supervisors (which means it could be more subject to politicization given a five-member board of supervisors with diverse opinions).

Yet it’s very unclear what the board’s appetite is, from a budget perspective, for another investigatory/auditing oversight agency to look into as many as a half dozen agencies.

Some, like Supervisor Michelle Steel, are already balking at the potential price tag of a county ethics commission.

And Supervisor Shawn Nelson in many ways triggered the whole OIR debate earlier this year during budget deliberations, questioning whether given the limitations on public disclosure, OIR is worth even a Yugo investment.

Race cars can be built on a pay-as-you-go, Yugo budget.

The key is to have the right blueprint and vision.

Yet whether Orange County supervisors have the patience or collective will to craft that kind of approach in the coming months remains to be seen.

Maybe our faith is better kept with the feds …