It took over a year, but it looks like Orange County will be getting a new law enforcement watchdog -- a veteran prosecutor with a long history of fighting public corruption.
County supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to negotiate a contract with Gary Schons – who for 20 years led the criminal division of the state Attorney General’s office in San Diego – to head up the county’s Office of Independent Review (OIR).
In a career that's spanned four decades, Schons has built a strong reputation for tackling corruption cases, including in Orange County.
As a deputy attorney general in the 1980s, he helped prosecute and convict former OC supervisors Ralph Diedrich and Phil Anthony on bribery charges.
In 2005, Schons oversaw the state prosecution of Orange County sheriff’s Capt. Christine Murray, who was accused of illegally soliciting donations for then-Sheriff Mike Carona from fellow employees. She ultimately accepted a plea deal.
In that case, Schons filed court papers alleging that prominent OC political consultant Michael Schroeder tried to help cover up the allegedly illegal solicitations.
Schroeder worked as a high-level campaign consultant for both Carona and District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, and Schroeder's former wife, Susan Kang Schroeder, has long been one of Rackauckas’ closest advisors. Michael Schroeder denied the cover-up claims.
Earlier this decade, Schons oversaw the state AG's investigation of a wide-ranging corruption scandal involving a $102 million settlement between San Bernardino County officials and a consortium run by developer Jeff Burum. Three county officials and the developer are currently on trial in the so-called Colonies corruption case.
He comes back to Orange County as Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens remain mired in the years-long jailhouse snitch scandal. Their agencies are being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice, the state AG and the county grand jury for allegedly covering up an informants network that routinely violated the constitutional rights of criminal defendants.
While the OIR's main mission is investigating potentially problematic practices within the sheriff’s department and DA's office, along with other agencies, it's not yet clear whether Schons will launch his own probe into the informants case.
But he is expected to examine the DA’s controversial DNA collection program, known as “spit and acquit.”
DA officials say it’s been instrumental in solving more serious crimes that they couldn’t have solved otherwise. But its structure has also sparked concerns about conflicts of interest, given that the DA’s office is collecting and analyzing the evidence it presents in court.
And a county crime lab scientist has testified under oath that the the DA’s office tried to manipulate DNA evidence to support its case against an innocent person. DA officials have disputed those claims.
In a statement Tuesday, Supervisor Todd Spitzer applauded his colleagues for choosing Schons.
“Investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice, the State Attorney General, and the OC Grand Jury underscore the need to make certain the Office of Independent Review is designed and properly managed with the utmost integrity,” said Spitzer, a political foe of Rackauckas’ who is widely believed to be planning to run for district attorney in 2018.
“Mr. Schons' extensive experience in government law and unblemished reputation of integrity gives us every reason to believe he is the right person to organize the office so it will actually provide true oversight.”
Spitzer has worked with Schons in the past, with the supervisor hiring the former prosecutor in 2015 to seek advice from the state Fair Political Practices Commission about whether Spitzer had a conflict of interest in his ultimately successful effort to derail a Catholic Church senior housing project in North Tustin.
Spitzer was receiving over $10,000 a year from an investment firm run by one of the project's main opponents, Ron King, who lives within a mile of the proposed project and had argued that it would make traffic worse on his street.
Based on a letter from Schons, the FPPC ultimately gave Spitzer the go-ahead to participate.
The letter, however, didn't disclose that King was heavily involved in opposing the project, including leading fundraising for a neighborhood group that sued to stop the homes. County Counsel Leon Page later said that information wouldn't have been relevant to the FPPC's conflict of interest analysis.
No other supervisors commented on the appointment Tuesday, and Schons didn’t return phone messages seeking comment.
Schons started in the AG’s San Diego criminal division in 1976, and was eventually promoted to head the division in 1991, where he supervised 75 deputy attorneys general on cases that included public corruption prosecutions.
In 2011, he left the Attorney General’s Office to become a deputy district attorney and senior advisor for law and policy to San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.
And from 2010 to 2016, he directed all disciplinary proceedings against California judges, as trial counsel for the state’s Commission on Judicial Performance.
In 2014, he joined the municipal law firm Best Best & Krieger and heads up its public integrity practice.
Just over a year ago, supervisors expanded the role of the OIR to reach beyond the sheriff’s department to include the District Attorney’s Office and other county agencies.
A few months later, in March 2016, longtime OIR director Stephen Connolly resigned amid complaints from supervisors that he wasn’t proactive enough. The office has had no staff since then.
Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.