Deal for New County Law Enforcement Watchdog Nixed

A plan by Orange County supervisors to hire a former state prosecutor to be the county’s law enforcement watchdog has been scuttled.

On Jan. 24, the supervisors voted unanimously to engage Gary W. Schons -- a lawyer with decades of experience handling political corruption cases for the Attorney General’s Office -- to head the county’s Office of Independent Review (OIR).

But this week, Riverside-based Best, Best & Krieger,  Schons’ law firm, notified the county counsel that it was nixing the deal due to concerns that Schons’ work with the county could create conflict of interest issues with its many other municipal clients.

This means the supervisors, who were criticized for taking nearly a year to fill the controversial post, are again back at square one.

Schons, reached at the law firm’s San Diego office, declined comment, referring inquiries to the group’s home office. A firm spokeswoman declined comment.

For more than 20 years until 2011, Schons was chief of the criminal division of the state Attorney General’s Office in San Diego.

During that time, he oversaw a number of high-profile prosecutions in Orange County -- including the conviction of two supervisors in the 1980s, and in 2005 the conviction of a sheriff’s captain for illegally soliciting donations for then-Sheriff Mike Carona, who was convicted in federal court of jury tampering.

But the timing of the supervisors’ vote came as a complete surprise to Schons and the firm’s hierarchy, prompting the review that ultimately led to the deal being scratched, sources say.

The law firm is one of the oldest in the region and has many municipal clients in Orange County -- such as Santa Ana, San Clemente, San Juan Capistrano, Newport Beach and special districts, like water agencies.

While the board typically does vote on such hires, the fact the public action was taken abruptly before a pact with attorney’s law firm raises questions.

Andrew Do, vice chairman of the board, didn’t respond to a request for comment; Supervisor Todd Spitzer also couldn’t be reached.

The OIR’s main mission is to explore liability issues from any potentially problematic practices within the sheriff’s department, DA’s office and certain other agencies.

Last March, veteran OIR Director Stephen Connolly, resigned amid criticism of his oversight performance.

There was discussion that Connolly didn’t adequately inform the supervisors about the evolving informant scandal that arose in 2014 in the criminal trial of Scott Evans Dekraai, who in 2011 shot his wife and seven others dead in a Seal Beach beauty salon.

Dekraai’s public defender, Scott Sanders, uncovered a vast jailhouse informants network run by sheriff's deputies and DA prosecutors that violated the constitutional rights of criminal defendants. This prompted more than a half-dozen other convictions for murder and/or major offenses to be overturned.

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ office is now under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice for an alleged pattern and practice of violating defendant civil rights via the abuse of informants.

The state Attorney General’s Office also is conducting a criminal investigation into allegations several sheriff’s deputies and a deputy district attorney provided false testimony during a special hearing in the Dekraai’s case; where he pleaded guilty in the spring of 2014.

Supervisors expanded the review office in December 2015 to include examining "systemic issues and specific incidents" at the District Attorney's Office; and for the office to have the same access to confidential records as the county counsel.

Rackauckas' office has said the supervisors' review office can look at records and make recommendations to supervisors, but that supervisors don't have the authority to change how the DA's office is run.

Please contact Rex Dalton directly at rexdalton@aol.com