Santana: Orange County’s Criminal Justice Complex in Crisis

Talk about burying the lede…

Early last week, right on the heel of Monday night’s elections for the OCGOP Central Committee, rumors started flying that County Supervisor Todd Spitzer and his chief of staff Jeff Lalloway, also an Irvine city councilman, had split ways.

By Wednesday morning, media reports confirmed Lalloway was out.

This was a guy who just four months ago abruptly left his own divorce law practice and triggered a firestorm of controversy within the county government as he came over – at the unprecedented annual paycheck of $190K – to head Spitzer’s county office.

Spitzer, in what turned out be a telling moniker of political loyalty, essentially booted his then-chief of staff George Cardenas when he brought on Lalloway.

Cardenas is generally well regarded as a technocrat and seen as competent (note he was immediately hired by County Supervisor Shawn Nelson even though Spitzer reportedly fought the appointment, ironically arguing it presented a conflict).

Now, Lalloway and Spitzer both argue it was all just a bad fit.

Lalloway doesn’t like the “weeds” of policy as much as Spitzer is the official line.

Who knows what the truth really is here?

What is clear is that last Friday, Spitzer’s office sent out a press release, with the lede announcing that the latest victim to sit in the hot seat as Spitzer’s chief of staff will be current-press secretary Melanie Eustice.

How long will she last?

To date, in just over one term, Spitzer has gone through five chiefs of staff, Mike Johnson, Martha Ochoa, George Cardenas, Lalloway and now Eustice. His office also has seen significant general staff turnover.

That’s the real lede.

I don’t think any of Spitzer’s colleagues has switched out a chief of staff slot in the past five years. It’s a rare thing.

Note that Spitzer has amassed a million-dollar campaign account in order to take over the Orange County District Attorney’s office next year.

Watching these kinds of management and people skills must be terrifying to deputy district attorneys, already working in a deeply politicized environment and now looking to this guy as their next potential boss.

Now, it’s no secret that I’ve personally had serious disagreements with Spitzer and the county counsel’s office over their flawed and politicized reading of California’s public records laws and we are in court over those differences.

More and more, I have witnessed our county government going off the rails, veering into a sustained lack of respect for the rule of law, indeed a constant bending of the law – especially when it comes to public records.

That is why we have invested our own preciously limited dollars, defending First Amendment access rights here in Orange County.

We will have our day in court this coming March and remain confident in our case.

Reading our news pages this past week – following another great dispatch from Rex Dalton inside the local courtroom of Judge Thomas M. Goethals in the ever-evolving jailhouse snitch scandal – I found it noteworthy that we are not alone in questioning how the county and top law enforcement officials handle records as well as their overall commitment to transparency.

It’s a pretty low bar in Orange County.

Judge Goethals has been dealing with massive stonewalling by both District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens for several years now in the ongoing case of Scott Dekraai — who pleaded guilty in 2014 to killing his wife and seven other people in a 2011 shooting at a Seal Beach beauty salon.

Goethals is clearly getting tired of the traditional OC game of stall.

According to Dalton’s dispatch, last week in court “Goethals read emails in two cases describing how sheriff deputies, an assistant sheriff and a Santa Ana homicide detective were involved in planning to deploy informants to secure compromising statements from inmates — noting this is exactly what the prosecution/sheriff teams repeatedly testified never occurred.

“My God,” exclaimed Goethals, about one email apparently dated November 2011, the month after Dekraai’s slaughter. “What’s going on over there? If that’s not a smoking gun, I don’t know what is.”

Dekraai’s case continues to shed a damning light on systematic attempts by Orange County’s top law enforcement officers to violate the U.S. Constitution they swore to uphold.

Hutchens (remember our last one, Mike Carona, was indicted on corruption-related charges in 2008) is once again at odds with local courts — close to facing a contempt order, even fines — over lack of disclosure in a criminal case.

It seems our county government, which is just now arising out of the financial ashes from the 1994 bankruptcy, is now watching over a second bankruptcy, one arising out of its criminal justice complex.

Yet this bankruptcy impacts much more than our pocketbooks.

And much worse, this bankruptcy can’t be repaid or settled because all of our civil liberties, not to mention who knows how many criminal cases, have all been irrevocably compromised.

And worst of all, scores of criminals who should have been prosecuted will now go free because of this scandal.

None of this seems to bother county supervisors – who clearly share Lalloway’s disinterest in the work of the county government but are, unlike him, increasingly expert at sticking around and padding their paychecks, all while staying quiet and becoming Olympians at ribbon-cutting ceremonies.

And just like three decades ago, they are adept at avoiding oversight.

We should probably give Lalloway credit for being the only OCGOP official in recent memory to get a job on the fifth floor of the Orange County Hall of Administration and immediately leave.