It looks like Orange County’s next public defender could be an outsider, with county supervisors gearing up to interview candidates after the filing period for applicants closed earlier this month.
While many public defenders – most recently Frank Ospino and Debra Kwast - were inside hires, this time around county supervisors have left the job in interim hands (Sharon Petrosino) for months since Ospino left last December for a judicial appointment.
And while past public defender recruitments had committee interviews that included staff, this current process is more cloaked, less transparent.
The timing for an outside hire to lead the Public Defender’s Office, which by law is selected by county supervisors, also couldn’t be more bizarre.
Orange County’s criminal justice system is in full-blown crisis mode.
And much of it is because one public defender, Scott Sanders, got the resources and time to go hog wild figuring out how jail snitches were used illegally by Orange County prosecutors.
The results so far have been stark and garnered national headlines.
County supervisors – along with taxpayers, victims, inmates and affected families - may be looking at hundreds, maybe even thousands of impacted cases over the next decade.
District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens have both downplayed the scandal, saying it amounts to nothing more than simple paperwork errors, administrative oversights and bad training.
Yet others, and that chorus is steadily expanding, see a concerted effort in Orange County, stretching over decades, to skirt around the U.S. Constitution when it comes to criminal defendants.
Now it’s starting to unravel.
Rackauckas even had his own internal review publicly tell him that he runs an agency dominated by fear where underlings won’t speak up – because they are afraid of his Chief of Staff Susan Kang Schroeder.
Now, who knows where this scandal – which impacts both Rackauckas’ and Hutchens’ administration – ends up going?
Now, so far it doesn’t look like federal prosecutors or State Attorney General Kamala Harris – right in the midst of a U.S. Senate race – are in any hurry to go after their brethren at the Orange County District Attorneys’ office.
That means further investigation of Orange County’s snitch scandal really comes down to the next public defender.
That’s the official who will have to make the hard choices on keeping scarce resources focused on finding cases impacted by what appears to be a systematic disinformation campaign run by Orange County prosecutors and Sheriff’s deputies for decades.
And guess who gets to make the call on who the next public defender is?
The Orange County Board of Supervisors.
A more conflicted group you could not find.
Supervisor Todd Spitzer, who has been the Board of Supervisors’ main driver on their own response to the snitch scandal, last week argued with Rackauckas publicly, joining Supervisor Lisa Bartlett in a hard questioning of the DA about why updates on the handling of the scandal hadn’t been offered up as promised.
Rackauckas replied that he hadn’t offered up any because Spitzer – who is expected to run for DA in 2018 - was politicking on the issue.
Rackauckas has said he intends to run for DA in 2018 while many believe he is grooming Kang Schroeder to take over at some point.
The challenge for Spitzer will be, does he push for a bulldog public defender to trigger more scandal for Rackauckas and Kang Schroeder? Or does that risk confronting an emboldened PD office if he’s elected DA in 2018?
Bartlett’s own Chief of Staff Paul Walters (a former Santa Ana Police Chief and candidate for Sheriff against Hutchens) is said to still harbor ambitions for a future run at Sheriff.
At one point, there was a rumor that supervisors may hold the job open for a bit to try to offer their colleague, Andrew Do, a landing spot in case he loses re-election as Supervisor later this year.
Do, remember, also is close to Rackauckas, and himself a former prosecutor.
Supervisor Michelle Steel is reportedly super close to Kang Schroeder. And her husband Shawn Steel is also close to Rackauckas through his close friend – and Rackauckas' legal advisor – Mike Schroeder (former husband to Kang Schroeder).
Supervisor Shawn Nelson – actually a former defense attorney himself – is also close to Rackauckas and is often the personality on the board of supervisors that most openly counters Spitzer.
The key point here is that nobody on that Board of Supervisors – except for Spitzer and maybe Bartlett – has any interest in seeing the Public Defender's office continue to bloody up the DA in court with more motions that trigger national headlines for Orange County.
Keep in mind this is a group that has, in the past, lamented that bad news is bad for Orange County's brand.
We’re still waiting for supervisors to hire a performance auditor, after they fired the last one (Philip Cheng), who was so tame that even they had to take action.
We’re unlikely to ever see the kind of aggressive audits that came out of the Performance Audit division around 2006 when former Human Resources head Steve Danley ran the agency.
Danley’s audits cost him the CEO’s job when it came up. After a while as HR Director, Danley retired.
The performance auditor – established with such grand press releases by supervisors about their ability to look under their own hood – has never again really functioned.
I have yet to even see our new Auditor Controller Eric Woolery put out a blazing audit – even though he pushed to have the internal audit agency put under his own charge.
While Woolery has challenged supervisors on the periphery (Nelson’s pension grab and Do’s questionable election mailers), he so far hasn’t demonstrated the ability to delve deeply into agencies.
So again, I’m suspicious that the Board of Supervisors won’t try to politick this appointment.
Now some who live in local courtrooms tell me that it doesn’t matter who the public defender is, the ground troops – especially those in Orange County – will continue to do their job. And do it well.
“Those charged will still receive quality services regardless of who the boss is. They’re (public defenders) still going to care about their clients,” said local attorney James Crawford, who himself recently had one of his clients, Henry Rodriguez, secure a retrial after proving impact from jail snitches to a local judge.
“Regardless, I’m confident the deputies and the assistants (public defenders) will keep doing the quality work they’ve done over the years. And I don’t see the county Board of Supervisors gaining control over that.”
“It’s still lawyers doing the most important aspect of the job,” said Crawford, who was recently beaten bloody by a DA investigator outside a local courtroom after the Rodriquez case.
Except, the more I do this job the more I realize there’s lots of ways that politicians are able to pull strings, influence processes – even in ways we don’t immediately realize.
Now, based on what has already been found, the next public defender could easily push the Board of Supervisors publicly for an expanded budget to keep digging.
Keep in mind this kind of corruption doesn’t just involve snitches but also raises concerns about systemic lying by Sheriff's deputies in court.
Given the tepid attitude of our state attorney general and federal prosecutors to go after their friends at the OC DA’s office or the Sheriff’s Department, there’s easily an argument to appoint a team of public defenders to work with Sanders, who at this point must be seeing patterns.
Remember that expensive, Office of Independent Review at the Sheriff’s Department that officials like former county supervisor, current State Senator John Moorlach (who invented it) supported so vigorously as an important check?
Ask yourself – despite a recent doubling down by county supervisors on funding for OIR – where is that agency on the issue?
Any team of investigators could spend years going after cases, stretching all the way back to the 1980s to make sure that there’s no innocent person rotting in a jail cell who might have been unfairly sold out by a jailhouse snitch.
Now, if that idea gives you heartburn as a politician, what would you do?
Easy -- you appoint a weak public defender.
Appoint someone like Cheng, our former performance auditor, who didn’t have any standing within agencies or knowledge or background on Orange County.
Or somebody, like Steve Connolly, our former OIR head, a talented guy in his field but who worked with an unclear public mandate from supervisors and never played a major public role in any law enforcement issue in Orange County.
You appoint a public defender that doesn’t know the office, doesn’t know how to play budgetary politics.
You get somebody who cuts a deal for an easier life, maybe somebody who transfers Scott Sanders to another assignment.
The world of publicly-funded defense for indigents is already a lopsided funding reality, with most politicians spending lavishly on prosecutors but not public defenders.
I don’t expect that to change, especially not in Orange County.
But what we should all consider is that the ongoing snitch scandal involving our sheriff and district attorney – cuts to very heart of the role of the public defender, if not the very concept of checks and balances at the local level.
As I’ve written previously, I’ve seen numerous instances where county supervisors have dropped the ball on important pillars of accountability in our community.
For all our sakes, I sure hope the Public Defender's Office doesn’t end up in that graveyard.