DA Pushes Back Against Effort to Expand County Oversight Office

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas has now gone public with his opposition to an effort to expand county supervisors’ oversight of his office, as supervisors meet today to see if there’s enough support to keep pursuing the expansion.

In a letter sent Monday to the supervisors, Rackauckas argued that such an expansion of the Office of Independent Review is both unnecessary and legally impossible.

“A county oversight committee cannot legally exercise any supervisory control over the manner in which the District Attorney executes its prosecutorial function. The District Attorney also cannot legally nor prudently share the vast majority of investigative and prosecutorial material within its possession to a third-party oversight committee,” Rackaucaks wrote.

He went on to argue that there’s already sufficient oversight of his office through the state Attorney General, county grand jury, courts and the California State Bar.

A union that represents front-line prosecutors is also pushing back, saying the proposal triggers “meet and confer” requirements and that there’s already enough oversight as it is.

“There is a system in place already in California, in the United States, that covers what you’re seeking to do,” said Larry Yellin, president of the Orange County Attorney’s Association, at a Monday meeting of an ad-hoc supervisors’ committee about the expansion.

In response, supervisors’ Chairman Todd Spitzer says the expansion has been mischaracterized. ”I think there’s a really big and gross misunderstanding” that the “board somehow wants to micromanage cases,” he said.

Supervisors are in charge of settling lawsuits over issues like children improperly removed from homes, Spitzer added, and today board members “don’t have anybody that helps us with that assessment. We’re literally in the dark” as a board as to whether there’s credibility to allegations.

Supervisor Andrew Do also said that the expansion wouldn’t get into how criminal cases are handled in real time.

“I’m not advocating an oversight model where we go in and look over your police report” and decide what code section you’ll charge, Do said during the meeting.

The Office of Independent Review has drawn the ire of several supervisors over the years, largely over claims that its director, Steve Connolly, hasn’t done enough to keep them informed about key issues, such as the DA’s ongoing scandal surrounding jailhouse informants.

The informants scandal – which has included misuse of informants, withholding of key evidence, alleged perjury by law enforcement, and convicted criminals being released early due to the botching of their cases – has rocked the county’s criminal justice system and led to calls for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation of Rackauckas’ office.

The county sheriff’s deputies’ union, which represents DA investigators, agrees that the expansion – including having the review office involved in employee discipline – requires a meet-and-confer process, pointing out that the county agreed to a similar position in 2008 when the review office was set up at the sheriff’s department.

They also argue that DA employees have the right to prevent the expansion under their labor contract.

These types of “matters cannot be bargained, and they cannot be changed, absent consent” from the workers, attorney Adam Chaikin wrote in a letter to supervisors on behalf of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs.

Tuesday’s supervisors meeting should reveal whether Spitzer’s effort to expand the office has enough support to move forward.

He needs two other supportive supervisors to move forward. Supervisor Michelle Steel has been steadfastly against expansion, particularly to the DA’s office, and Supervisor Shawn Nelson isn’t considered likely to support it either.

That likely leaves supervisors Lisa Bartlett and Andrew Do as the two swing votes.

“In terms of how do we structure that oversight, is really probably the biggest difference in terms of the different thinking that may exist on the board,” Do said Monday.

There’s also an open question about what will happen when Connolly’s contract expires on Dec. 31.

Spitzer and Nelson earlier this year announced plans to let Connolly’s prior contract expire at the end of August, saying he’s unfit for the job. But they later extended it to the end of the year.

Now, Spitzer is suggesting Connolly could stay on past the end of the year, if there’s board support.

Connolly “is willing to cooperate with the board and the sheriff’s department, whether it’s on a term or a month to month [contract]. But he is very amenable to working with us while we continue our search” for a replacement, Spitzer said.

You can contact Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.