Dramatic OC Board of Supervisors Meeting Covers DA, Homelessness and Alleged Conflicts

NICK GERDA, Voice of OC

Orange County supervisors heard from 26 public speakers who read aloud the names of more than 200 homeless people who died in 2018, during the Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018.

Orange County supervisors finished the year with a dramatic public meeting, featuring goodbyes to Supervisors Todd Spitzer and Shawn Nelson, criticism of all five supervisors over the deaths of more than 200 homeless people this year, and questions from the incoming DA about wiretapping and alleged conflicts of interest.

The final scheduled meeting of the year started with supervisors saying goodbye to Spitzer and Nelson, reflecting on their time together, and pointing to accomplishments.

The supervisors’ chairman, Andrew Do, singled out Nelson as “a gifted legislator” who always comes prepared and has “a vast wealth of experience” that makes him “a very formidable advocate” for what he believes in.

Spitzer will be taking office as district attorney on Jan. 7, after winning election in November against incumbent DA Tony Rackauckas.

Nelson was a harsh critic of Spitzer’s, but ended up changing course and endorsing him in September. He will join Spitzer as the DA’s second-in-command, the chief assistant district attorney.

Nelson will be in charge of day-to-day operations at the prosecutor’s office, which has more than 850 employees and handles over 60,000 criminal cases each year in the nation’s sixth-most populous county.

“Chief assistant district attorney is one of the most powerful positions in this county. And he’s gonna do a phenomenal job,” Spitzer said.

It’s unclear if Nelson has previous experience in a prosecutor’s office, and he didn’t return phone messages Tuesday asking if he had experience with criminal law.

Spitzer said he believed Nelson had criminal law experience in his private practice, and that Nelson’s firm, formerly known as Rizio & Nelson, had a criminal defense practice. According to Nelson’s official county biography, he “was a civil litigator and represented small business owners and individuals in a variety of legal matters.”

Spitzer also said Tuesday the DA’s office will have a prosecutor responsible for identifying people with mental illness “who need extra help.” And he said the DA’s office will “do everything we can to expand the collaborative courts, to help those people who are homeless to have a guide and a path to get back on the right track.”

Advocates Read Aloud Names of 200-Plus Homeless People Who Died This Year

A few minutes after supervisors congratulated themselves on a job well-done, about two dozen activists read aloud the names of more than 200 homeless people who died in Orange County this year – roughly double the number of homeless people who died annually four years ago.

The comments from the 26 people who spoke were tearful and angry at times, as people told stories and showed photos of homeless friends who died in shelters, cars, and elsewhere.

“I’m going to read a list here of names of people who were your constituents, that you had the responsibility to help. You didn’t. And some of these are directly – you’re directly responsible for their death through your inaction,” said Wes Jones, an Anaheim resident and member of the advocacy group Anaheim People’s Homeless Task Force.

Heidi Zimmerman, another advocate, said the county’s Bridges at Kraemer is “disease-ridden.”

“People aren’t meant to be 200 people in a room. You’re killing my friends. Stop killing my friends!” she told the supervisors, her voice raising to a screaming pitch.

Zimmerman said a homeless woman she knows “is in a bed full of bed bugs, and nobody gives a shit! You don’t give a shit, you’re too busy praising each other! How – what a great job you’re doing. Can’t you help them?”

She added: “People are dying in the shelters, people are dying in the streets. What’s wrong with you?”

The supervisors didn’t respond to the people who spoke to them about the homeless deaths, or comment on the issue.

“You all better be ashamed of yourselves,” activist Jestin Samson told supervisors after reading the names of several homeless people who died this year.

“I know earlier on you were patting yourselves on the back, having this big circle jerk about how everything’s all peachy keen in this county. But I want to say, shame on each one of you for allowing this to happen.”

Homeless deaths in OC have roughly doubled over the last few years, from a little over 100 deaths in 2014, to more than 200 deaths this year. The exact number of homeless deaths so far in 2018 wasn’t immediately available from sheriff-coroner officials.

The annual Longest Night memorial for homeless people who died in OC over the previous year is scheduled for this Friday, Dec. 21, at Anaheim Cemetery (1400 E Sycamore St., Anaheim) from 4 to 7 p.m.

Employee of Homeless Contractor Telecare Says it Failed County

For months, advocates have complained about the treatment of homeless people by Telecare, a company hired by the county to provide mental health services and shelter at the Baymont Inn & Suites motel in Anaheim.

Allegations included that the company failed to provide health treatment it was supposed to, did not clean dirty rooms, and unnecessarily escalated a situation into physical confrontation.

On Tuesday, during public comments about the homeless deaths, a Telecare employee publicly said the company, while being paid by the county, had failed homeless people.

“I work for Telecare Corporation, the [company] that failed you guys, as they also failed me and my clients,” said Jacqueline Glass, who was a registered mental health counselor at the Baymont.

“The money that you gave to Telecare, they’re failing you each and every day,” Glass added.

“David Robert Doan, on August 31, 2018 was evicted, [along with] his girlfriend Nikki and their two dogs, from the Baymont Inn [and] Suites on Beach Blvd. in Anaheim. It was the final day of agreement between the owners of the property, and the county, which [had] leased the motel to temporary house” homeless people displaced from the Santa Ana riverbed.

“I know what happened….I wasn’t there but I was working. He begged to go to the doctor. The nurse pulled over, gave him water, checked his pulse. They said that he was fine. However, he kept begging, go to the doctor. They did not take him to the doctor. And when he got down to…the Courtyard, he lost conscious[ness] and went into a coma and passed away.”

A Telecare spokeswoman declined to comment for this article.

Glass told a Voice of OC reporter she still is a Telecare employee and has been on stress leave.

DA’s Hiring of Defense Lawyer in Police Union Spying Suit Raises Questions

Later in Tuesday’s meeting, Spitzer questioned why supervisors weren’t informed of a possible conflict of interest related to the DA’s “independent monitor” for reforms in the wake of the informants scandal.

Rackauckas, the current DA, asked supervisors in August 2016 to approve a contract to have attorney Stephen Larson, a former federal judge, serve as the monitor to follow up on whether the DA was implementing the reforms.

On Tuesday, Spitzer said, it turns out Larson was also representing someone being prosecuted by the DA’s office: Christopher Lanzillo, a private investigator who was charged with illegally spying on Costa Mesa City Council members on behalf of a law firm hired by the city’s police union.

Larson was representing Lanzillo and the law firm – Lackie, Dammeier, McGill and Ethir – in the civil case filed by two of the council members over the same surveillance activities, Spitzer said.

“If any member of this Board [of Supervisors] knew in August [2016] – when we were asked to approve $300,000 two-year contract – that the same lawyer was defending the law firm and the investigators who were accused of putting a bug…on Mr. Righeimer and Mr. Mensinger’s car, we probably would’ve had some questions about that,” Spitzer said.

“We’d probably want to know, why would the DA want to hire the same lawyer who is the lawyer for a man you’ve charged with a crime?”

Jim Tanizaki, the current chief assistant district attorney, emphasized Larson was representing Lanzillo and the law firm in the civil case rather than criminal case. And Tanizaki said he didn’t know if Rackauckas knew at the time whether Larson represented the investigator and law firm in the civil case.

In May 2016, three months before Rackauckas asked supervisors for approval of Larson’s contract, a state appeals court issued a ruling in the surveillance lawsuit which noted Larson was representing Lanzillo and the law firm.

Larson declined to comment for this article when reached by phone Tuesday.

Lanzillo, the private investigator, ended up pleading guilty in September 2017 to three felony counts of conspiracy and one felony false imprisonment charge for surveillance. He was sentenced to one year in county jail and three years probation.

Spitzer said DA officials were investigating Lackie Dammeier, the law firm, over the surveillance, but did not pursue charges against the firm.

“Lackie had also been under investigation by the District Attorney’s Office, and potentially a grand jury had been convened on that issue,” Spitzer said.

“So the question becomes…by having inside access, as a consultant, to the DA’s office through [the independent monitor role] and direct access to the district attorney, did Mr. Larson have any undue influence with respect with the way the Lackie disposition was handled, and/or the Lanzillo case was handled or disposed of? And so that’s my concern.”

Do, the supervisors’ chairman, said he wasn’t sure if it was a conflict of interest, and that he and other supervisors would need time to look into it further.

In his first independent monitor report, Larson had said he’d provide quarterly reports on whether the DA was implementing the reforms. But he did not file several of the reports he promised.

In an interview last year, 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.

Incoming DA Asks About Wiretap Approvals

On the heels of a Voice of OC article earlier Tuesday about an upgrade wiretapping system for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, a high-ranking sheriff official told the incoming district attorney the upgraded system doesn’t authorize wiretapping without DA approval, when it comes to state cases.

Wiretapping orders have to be approved by the sheriff or an employee she designates, as well as an attorney at the DA’s office, the elected district attorney, and an Orange County Superior Court judge, said Capt. Ken Burmwood, who leads the sheriff’s Investigations Division and is program manager for the Regional Narcotics Suppression Program, which manages the wiretapping system.

“So this doesn’t give you independent authority outside the District Attorney’s requirement as the elected official, to approve a wiretap. Is that correct?” Spitzer asked.

“On a state wiretap, that’s correct,” Burmwood responded. The task force also does federal wiretaps, which are approved by a federal prosecutor and federal judge, according to the Sheriff’s Department.

Sheriff officials have said the wiretapping system, from the Nebraska-based company Pen-Link, allows law enforcement to monitor, store, and analyze phone conversations and internet communications for investigations of major drug trafficking and money laundering operations.

The narcotics task force has eight local law enforcement agencies in addition to the Sheriff’s Department, one state agency and three federal agencies, according to the Sheriff’s Department. The federal agencies include the FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the Army National Guard.”

DA’s Controversial DNA Contract Up in the Air

Also at Tuesday’s board meeting, Spitzer said he was following through on a campaign pledge to examine the district attorney’s controversial DNA collection program and decide whether to continue it.

Spitzer shortened a proposed three-year extension of the DNA laboratory contract to six months, which he said would allow for the review of the program.

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