OC Supes Step Up Scrutiny of DA After Informants Scandal Report

Orange County supervisors are stepping up their scrutiny of District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ office after a panel of legal experts found that a “failure of leadership” likely contributed to the misuse of jailhouse informants and improper withholding of evidence from defendants.

After a lengthy closed-session on the issue Tuesday, supervisors announced a series of new requirements relating to the informants scandal, including:

  • Reports from Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens on their responses to the panel’s findings.
  • Details on which of the panel’s recommendations will be implemented, budgetary impacts, and reasons for not implementing any of the recommendations.
  • A ban on the destruction of any and all records relating to the informants network.

Beyond these specific requests, supervisors said they were concerned about the panel’s finding of a “a palpable hesitation” among DA staff “to bring problematic information” to Rackauckas’ attention, and emphasized that they do not tolerate retaliation against employees.

Regarding the records, they stipulated that Hutchens and Rackauckas would need approval from County Counsel Leon Page, CEO Frank Kim, and the county’s human relations department before any records can be purged.

The new requirements follow last week’s release of a scathing report by the panel, which was assembled by Rackauckas himself in response to the ongoing informants scandal.

It involves many cases of 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.

After the revelations were brought to the fore by public defender Scott Sanders, Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals removed DA prosecutors from the biggest mass murder case in county history.

The situation has led to calls by the New York Times and national legal authorities for a federal investigation into what has been characterized as systemic violations of defendants’ constitutional rights.

In their report, the panelists described some DA prosecutors as consumed by “a win at all costs mentality” that is enabled by Rackauckas’ lack of leadership. 

The panel also called for the county grand jury, the state Attorney General or the federal Justice Department to launch an investigation. And last week, Rackauckas sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch that welcomed a federal probe.

Additionally, Rackauckas has said many of the panel’s other recommendations will be implemented, if they haven’t already been put in place.

But he did reject a recommendation to demote his chief of staff, Susan Kang Schroeder, who was also his most recent re-election campaign manager.

And Rackauckas delayed a decision on whether to follow through on the recommendation that he restore a second-in-command position under him, known as a chief assistant district attorney.

Tuesday’s move marked a potential turning point for OC supervisors, who traditionally take much more of a hands-off role when it comes to management issues under other elected county officials.

Under the county’s governance structure, the DA’s office and Sheriff’s Department are run by independently-elected officials, with some oversight from county supervisors.

As such, much deference – both legally and politically – is typically given to independent county elected officials, like the sheriff and DA.

Tuesday’s action followed a two-and-a-half-hour closed session supervisors held with Hutchens, Rackauckas, and his deputy Mike Lubinski.

Supervisor Shawn Nelson was absent Tuesday, reportedly on a trip to Washington, D.C. for the Orange County Transportation Authority.

Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.