DA’s Monitor on Use of Informants Didn’t File Reports He Promised

JOSE OCHOA, Voice of OC intern

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas speaks during the June 27, 2017, Orange County Board of Supervisors meeting.

A lawyer whose firm has been paid at least $140,000 in taxpayer funds to monitor the Orange County District Attorney’s compliance with jailhouse informant reforms did not file the two reports he promised for the first half of this year.

The monitor, Stephen G. Larson, wrote in his first report in November he would submit quarterly reports about whether the DA is implementing the reforms.

But in an interview Tuesday, Larson said quarterly reports weren’t required in his contract, and that he later realized his team’s time is better spent on more important tasks.

“I thought that it was more important to spend the time that we are spending on this doing substantive work…in terms of providing advice, obtaining information, getting the actual recommendations fully implemented than spending time writing reports,” Larson said.

“Many of those things were better communicated in our meetings” with the DA’s office, he said.

In addition, no monthly bills have been paid under the contract since March, when Larson nearly reached his $150,000 annual cost limit, just over halfway through the contract year.

“We ran out of funds basically in March to continue the work for the year,” Larson said.

“I think this turned out to be a bigger project than was budgeted. I certainly would have liked to have done more work, but we’re limited by our budget.”

Despite nearly reaching the limit, the DA’s office allowed work to continue on the contract in the remaining months of the fiscal year, without obtaining a contract increase from the Board of Supervisors, whose approval is required by county policy.

DA officials declined to say how they plan to pay Larson’s firm an amount over the annual contract limit.

They have suggested the bills may be processed as part of the second year of the contract, but county officials say supervisors’ approval still is needed.

Larson and his law firm, Larson O’Brien LLP, were hired by District Attorney Tony Rackauckas last August after an expert panel recommended the DA have a retired judge monitor whether the prosecutors’ office is implementing the reforms recommended by the panel to prevent misuse of informants.

The reform recommendations stemmed from a scandal in which jailhouse informants were illegally used and evidence was not provided to defense attorneys.

At least six convictions for murder and other serious crimes have been overturned because of alleged misconduct related to informants, known as the “jailhouse snitch scandal.”

Under Larson’s contract, he and another attorney at his firm are paid $575 per hour to review the DA’s compliance with the reform recommendations and provide “regularly scheduled reports” about it to the DA.

Additionally, he’s tasked with providing the DA with advice about changing policies and practices regarding informants, evidence disclosure obligations, and training of prosecutors.

Larson said he plans to file his next report sometime this week. It’s unclear if the public will get to learn his findings. The DA previously has declined to release Larson’s findings, citing attorney-client privilege. Voice of OC received the November report because the county supervisors released it.

In his November report, Larson said he would be providing “quarterly reports,” starting with that “first quarterly report” as well as annual reports starting in August 2017.

“We will provide preliminary assessments of the OCDA’s implementation of the [reform] recommendations in our subsequent quarterly reports and final assessments in our annual reports,” Larson wrote in his first report on Nov. 30, 2016. Later in the report, he wrote: “Larson O’Brien LLP will submit quarterly and annual reports.”

Based on that schedule, Larson would have submitted quarterly reports in February and May.

But he didn’t, according to DA officials.

Chief Assistant District Attorney Jim Tanizaki, who oversees the contract, said Larson hasn’t submitted any other reports besides the one in November.

“He’s only written one report,” Tanizaki said last week when questioned by Supervisor Todd Spitzer at the county supervisors’ regular meeting. Spitzer is running against Rackauckas for DA in next year’s election.

Tanizaki said Larson currently is working on a “substantive” report.

He didn’t explain why Larson didn’t issue the quarterly reports he had promised.

Asked what happened, DA spokeswoman Michelle Van Der Linden said, in spite of what Larson wrote in his November report, there never was any agreement between Larson and the DA’s office over how often he would be submitting reports.

“There was no agreement to quarterly reports,” she said, adding “there was no agreed frequency” for the reports.

(Click here to read the November report.)

Larson has been in court for most of the last year as a defense attorney in a high-profile corruption trial, known as the Colonies bribery case, which involves three San Bernardino County officials.

The long-running trial started in January and entered jury deliberations last week. Larson works alongside the law partner of Rackauckas’ ex-wife, Kay Anderle.

Larson and his law firm have received at least $140,000 for their work in the first seven months of the DA contract, from its approval last August until March, according to the county Auditor Controller’s Office, which handles payments for county contracts.

That’s close to the annual limit of $150,000, with several more months to go before the contract’s second year started in mid-August.

DA officials say Larson’s firm has continued to work on the contract. If it continued to incur costs at the same rate it did through March, the firm would have billed the county more than $200,000 for the first year of work, in spite of the $150,000 annual limit.

Spitzer questioned Tanizaki, the DA official who oversees the contract, about this last week. When the supervisor asked how much Larson’s firm has billed the DA’s office so far, Tanizaki responded: “I don’t know.”

“But he’s still within the contract amount?” Spitzer asked.

“You know what – uh, I – I’m not positive exactly where he is,” Tanizaki replied. “Because I think the contract ended – uh, or is ending – the contract year ends, like – what day is – it might be, like today or [tomorrow] – it’s, it’s in the next couple days…And we enter a new contract year.”

Spitzer interjected. “But he was given – it seemed like he had plenty of money, based on the [bills so far].”

“Right,” Tanizaki replied.

Spitzer continued: “But you would have to come back [to the Board of Supervisors] if it exceeded [the contract amount].”

“Right, but we’re also entering this…new year” for the contract, Tanizaki replied.

In a follow-up interview, the DA’s spokeswoman declined to say if Larson was allowed to provide services that exceeded the contract amount without supervisors’ approval, with the DA then waiting months to process the bills until the next contract year.

“We’ve said everything we’re gonna say with regard to the contract,” Van Der Linden said Friday, referring all further questions to the county.

County spokeswoman Jennifer Nentwig referred the questions back to the DA’s office, saying “the District Attorney’s office is the point of contact for this information.”

County officials say DA officials must return to the Board of Supervisors for a contract increase if they want to pay Larson’s firm more than the current annual limit.

The contract requires Larson’s law firm to submit billing statements to Tanizaki for each month it provides services. The invoices have to be sent to the DA’s office no later than 10 days after the end of the month.

And the contract requires the county to “make its best effort to process payments promptly after receiving Attorneys’ monthly billing statement.”

Voice of OC left telephone messages for Larson Friday and Monday, seeking his comments. He returned the calls Tuesday after this story was published. This is an update.

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