Supervisors Ready to Expand Role of Law Enforcement Watchdog

After months of wrangling, Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Todd Spitzer seems to have the votes needed to increase the board’s oversight of District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ office.

On a 3-2 vote Tuesday, supervisors directed county staff to prepare language that steps up the reporting duties of the county’s Office of Independent Review  (OIR) and expands its role beyond the Sheriff’s Department to include the DA’s office, Public Defender’s office, Probation Department, and Social Services Agency.

Spitzer has been clamoring for the expansion in the wake of the jailhouse informants scandal that has rocked the DA and Sheriff’s Department over the past year.

He’s said that the longtime OIR director, Steve Connolly, failed to keep board members apprised of developments in that case.

The scandal involves misuse of informants to gain incriminating statements, withholding of key evidence from defendants, alleged perjury by law enforcement, and convicted criminals being released early due to the botching of their cases.

The issues have gained national attention and led to calls for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation of Rackauckas’ office.

Rackauckas, his prosecutors’ and investigators’ unions, and Public Defender Frank Ospino have fought hard against the proposal. Meanwhile, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens – who says the OIR model has worked great in her department – supports the expansion.

Joining Spitzer in Tuesday’s vote were supervisors Andrew Do and Lisa Bartlett. Supervisors Shawn Nelson and Michelle Steel voted no.

Spitzer noted that supervisors are often having to deal with lawsuits over alleged misconduct by county law enforcement but lack a way to get an independent set of eyes and ears on the situation.

“We don’t have a venue” to get an independent evaluation, Spitzer said.

Do agreed, saying the expanded role wouldn’t involve review of day-to-day operations but rather deeper dives on systemic issues that come up.

“I look at oversight as a review process…to address what we see as the systemic flaws in our system” or “particular incidents that point to inherent flaws within our system, whether it be a lack of transparency or accountability,” Do said.

The review office has drawn the ire of some supervisors over the years, largely over claims that its director, Steve Connolly, hasn’t done enough to keep them informed about key issues, like the informants scandal.

Nelson, meanwhile, questioned why OIR should be expanded if it’s failed to do its job up until now by not being active enough.

“It is totally illogical to think that our experience curve in this area is somehow going to be improved by expanding the role of that which has already failed us. That makes no sense,” he said.

“Impress us once, then let’s have this discussion…let the facts tell us it’s the right thing to do.”

Do responded that the problem is with Connolly, not with the notion of having such a role.

“It is really hard for me to think that somehow we are asked to write the checks yet we have no quote-unquote ‘power’ to” get an independent evaluation of cases, he said.

Steel reiterated Nelson’s comments, saying supervisors should first focus on making sure the oversight office “really works the way it’s originally intended…before we grow its size and cost.”

Meanwhile, Bartlett – who is a crucial third vote in support of the changes – noted that many of criminal justice cases involve multiple county departments, making it important to “have everything in one umbrella.”

It’s “really important for us to get involved as board to intervene and participate on the front end” to address liability down the road, Bartlett said. “An ounce of prevention’s worth a pound of cure”

While the general idea of the expansion has majority support, the details still have to be worked out.

Specific changes are expected to come before supervisors at a future meeting, where they’d vote again on whether to actually expand the oversight office’s duties.

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