County Rejects DA Investigators’ Corruption Claims, Setting Stage for Court Battle

NICK GERDA, Voice of OC

County Counsel Leon Page at a 2016 Board of Supervisors meeting.

Orange County officials have officially rejected legal claims filed by two District Attorney investigators who alleged high-level corruption at the DA’s office, setting the stage for a lawsuit that will put the matter before the courts.

Investigators Tom Conklin and Abraham Santos allege they were whistle-blowers who faced retaliation after reporting misconduct within the office to higher-ups. Among their allegations is that a high-ranking prosecutor said the DA’s office wouldn’t look into an alleged cover-up of a former Fullerton City Manager’s drunk driving because the prosecutor and the then-Fullerton police chief are friends.

County officials said they hired an independent investigator – employment attorney R. Craig Scott, who previously served as mayor of Laguna Hills – to look into the claims. They said the review involved interviewing the investigators and more than a dozen other witnesses for over 200 hours.

“Mr. Scott conducted an exhaustive look at each of these asserted wrongful motivations and concluded that each was false,” County Counsel Leon Page wrote in an Aug. 10 letter to the investigators’ attorney announcing the county’s rejection of the claims.

“In sum, please know that if I did believe that the County had legal exposure on any aspect of these claims, I would very much endeavor to avoid litigation through good faith settlement discussions,” he added. “Deliberate consideration of each allegation has been the guiding principle that now leads the County to respectfully reject these claims.”

(Click here to read the county's letter rejecting the DA investigators' claims.)

In a statement, DA executives said they are “pleased that an independent investigator has confirmed what the OCDA has maintained from the start – the claims filed by Investigators Tom Conklin and Abraham Santos are without merit.”

The investigators’ attorney, Joel Baruch, disputed the county’s findings and said his clients will file suit. The lawsuit can be filed at any time in the next six months.

“In every case where there was a ‘he said, she said’ scenario, even where we have ironclad documentary proof, the investigatory conclusion erroneously assumed that Investigators Conklin and Santos were fabricating and the [other] OCDA employee(s) were telling the truth,” Baruch wrote in a letter Monday responding to Page.

“Why would they destroy their own law enforcement careers in order to fabricate information and evidence?” he added. Baruch said he will file a whistleblower suit on behalf of his clients “in a very short time.”

(Click here to read the response letter.)

In an interview, Baruch further disputed the credibility of the county investigation, saying the county actually had one of the accused DA officials conduct interviews for the “independent” probe.

Interviews were conducted by Madai Chavez, a DA human resources official who was accused of wrongdoing in the original claim, according to Baruch.

“So they had an accused [person] conduct the investigation,” Baruch said.

Page disputed that outright, saying it’s “entirely not true.”

“We have a contract with R. Craig Scott’s firm, Scott and Whitehead, and it was pursuant to that contract that we obtained his services.”

Asked if a DA human resources official was conducting interviews, Page said, “No, not at all.”

When DA spokeswoman Michelle Van Der Linden was asked if Chavez conducted the interviews, and whether an accused person was conducting the investigation, she replied: “The investigation was handled by R. Craig Scott, Scott & Whitehead.”

She did not specifically discuss Chavez or whether an accused person participated in the investigation.

Baruch also said Page, who is the county’s lead attorney, told him the county’s investigator found both Conklin and Santos to be “very credible.”

Asked if this is true, Page said, “I think the better word was, that they believed what they were saying, [that] they were sincere,” but “speculated and jumped to conclusions that are not factually accurate.”

In his 16-page claim, Santos alleged wrongdoing in the investigation of a November 2016 Election Night car crash in which Fullerton’s then-city manager, Joe Felz, was ultimately charged with driving under the influence and hit and run.

Santos alleged that former Fullerton Police Chief Dan Hughes dispatched a sergeant, Jeff Corbett, to pick up Felz and drive him home.

Santos claims Hughes was calling in a favor from Corbett, who was once caught by another police officer having sex in his patrol car while on duty, but was never disciplined.

When Santos told high-ranking prosecutor Ebrahim Baytieh that he was concerned about a possible cover-up of Felz’s DUI and the criminal obstruction of justice by Hughes, Baytieh allegedly responded, “I am friends with Chief Hughes and we are only going to be investigating the DUI and not anything else,” Santos claims.

County attorneys say that’s not what happened.

“Assistant District Attorney Ebrahim Baytieh did not have a personal friendship with the Fullerton Police Chief, and never declared that he did,” Page wrote in his letter rejecting the claims.

“Mr. Santos is simply wrong in asserting that Mr. Baytieh declared that due to his friendship with Police Chief Hughes, the [DA’s office] would only look at the D.U.I., and not at the possible obstruction of justice by the Fullerton Police Department.

"Obstruction of justice was always on the table. Despite Mr. Santos' uninformed claim of a cover-up, the case (still pending) has been, at all points, properly handled by the OCDA. Even if Mr. Santos were right that the OCDA turned a blind eye to Fullerton P.D. wrongdoing, Mr. Santos has no personal, viable claim for damages.”

In response, Baruch said his client has evidence proving his claims about the crash investigation.

“Investigator Santos has documentary proof of what happened on November 9, 2016, when an intoxicated [City Manager Joe] Felz was driven home from the scene of a crime in a naked attempt authorized by former Fullerton Police Chief Hughes to cover up the crimes purportedly committed by Mr. Felz,” the attorney wrote in his response letter.

“Despite your dismissal of his version of events in your rejection letter of August 10, 2017, both Investigators Santos and Conklin have amassed documentary and anecdotal evidence to the effect that DA Baytieh was ‘friendly’ with former Police Chief Hughes and assisted him by not pursuing obstruction of justice charges.

“The proof is in the pudding— i.e., if the investigation is still ‘open', then we expect obstruction of justice charges to soon be forthcoming as to former Fullerton Police Chief Hughes.”

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