Grand Jury Latest to Launch Probe of Jailhouse Snitch Scandal

Kaitlin E. Washburn for Voice of OC

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas (right) at a news conference. Seated next to him is Senior Assistant District Attorney Michael Lubinski.

Orange County’s jailhouse snitch scandal has taken a new turn, with revelations that the county grand jury has launched an investigation into alleged illegal conduct by prosecutors and sheriff’s deputies and is being assisted in the probe by a former United States attorney.

At some point this summer, the grand jury asked state Attorney General Kamala Harris to hire attorneys to “investigate and present evidence” for its informants investigation, according to AG records released by the county Tuesday.

“The Investigation will focus on all operational activities relating to the use of jailhouse informants within the offices of the Orange County District Attorney, the Orange County Sheriff-Coroner, and the County’s jail facilities,” states an AG description of the grand jury probe.

In fulfilling the grand jury’s request, AG officials opted for some heavyweight attorneys. They hired Andrea Ordin, a member of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission who was the first woman to serve as U.S. attorney for the Central District of California, the top federal prosecutor for Los Angeles and Orange counties. She also served as a high-ranking prosecutor in the state AG’s office and Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office.

And they hired a prominent law firm, Strumwasser & Woocher, whose partners have both worked in the AG’s office. Michael Strumwasser served as a special assistant attorney general, and Fred Woocher was special counsel to then-Attorney General John Van de Kamp.

The grand jury’s probe is the latest development in a scandal that began in early 2014, when public defender Scott Sanders revealed an extensive informant network being run inside county jails by sheriff’s deputies and prosecutors with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.

During an unprecedented months-long hearing before Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals, Sanders, who was representing mass murderer Scott Dekraai, showed how prosecutors and deputies misused informants and violated the constitutional rights of defendants. As a result, at least a half dozen people serving life sentences for murder and other major crimes have had their convictions overturned.

And in March 2015, Goethals barred the DA’s office from continuing to prosecute the death penalty phase of Dekraai’s trial, which would transfer that responsibility to the AG’s office.

Goethals’ order was upheld Tuesday by the 4th District Court of Appeal, which ruled that the DA’s office “violated targeted defendants’ constitutional rights through its participation in the [confidential informant] program” and “intentionally or negligently” ignored violations by the sheriff’s department.

Meanwhile, the AG’s office has been pursuing its own investigation of the informants scandal. That probe was announced just after Goethal’s March 2015 ruling, and has since expanded “as more things have come to light,” said Kristin Ford, an AG spokeswoman.

The AG investigation, she said, has involved speaking with dozens of witnesses and pouring through “thousands of pages of documents.”

As for the grand jury’s investigators, their work is “to investigate and present evidence to the grand jury,” including analyzing whether the DA and sheriff are following the law.

According to an AG office document, they’re also tasked with analyzing the Rackauckas’ implementation – or lack thereof – of recommendations by a panel of experts he appointed to look into his offices’ informant practices. The panel found that “a failure of leadership” in the DA’s office contributed to the informant misconduct.

While Rackauckas has put some of the recommendations into practice, he has refused to implement two of them: establishing a chief operating officer to oversee day-to-day operations at the DA’s office; and eliminating the chief of staff job held by his confidante and spokeswoman, Susan Kang Schroeder, who is widely believed to be Rackauckas’ choice to replace him when he retires.

It’s unclear when the grand jury investigators’ work started, but a document suggests they were hired in August. Their hiring required county officials to increase the grand jury’s budget by about $400,000, which the county Board of Supervisors approved Tuesday.

The Sheriff’s Department responded by saying it’s always ready to cooperate, while the DA’s office declined to comment about the investigation.

“The bottom line is the OCSD is always available to answer grand jury questions and provide information. We have always done that. This won’t change how we respond to the grand jury,” said sheriff’s Lt. Mark Stichter in a statement.

Grand juries have powers to subpoena documents and witnesses, though witnesses are able to plead their 5th Amendment right to refuse to testify.

Grand juries typically finish their reports before the end of their term in June. If grand jurors believe crimes may have been committed, they can forward their report to the AG’s office for possible prosecution.

At Tuesday’s county supervisors meeting, Supervisor Todd Spitzer – a successor-turned-foe of Rackuackas’ – called attention to the investigators’ hiring as the item came up. He said that in his 10 years on and off the Board of Supervisors, he had never seen the grand jury seek a budget increase to hire consultants.

County Counsel Leon Page, who has worked at the county since 2003, also said he hadn’t seen such a move.

Grand jury investigations are typically closely-held secrets, and when people in the know reveal their existence, they can be – and have been – prosecuted criminally.

But in this case county officials were sent information about the investigation because of their role in approving funding. And Page – under questioning from Spitzer – argued that the records can be released to the public. Page said he had invited the AG’s office to file a lawsuit to try to block their release, but it had not.

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