Santana: New OC DA Wants To Make a Deal with Feds Ending DOJ Jailhouse Snitch Probe

JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

District Attorney Todd Spitzer at his swearing-in event in January 2019.

Norberto Santana, Jr.

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Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer is calling on federal authorities to end their ongoing probe into use of jailhouse snitches in Orange County and instead make a deal to institute reforms.

“I’m willing to admit everything that happened,” Spitzer told me last week during a phone interview where we talked about the jail house scandal that catapulted him into office as the chief law enforcement officer in a county where that job had been seemingly phoned-in for a long time.

Spitzer is eager to admit to every misdeed committed by Sheriff’s Deputies and prosecutors run by his predecessor, Tony Rackauckas, over a jail house informants scandal that has unraveled a series of cases against hardened criminals because prosecutors didn’t properly disclose the use of informants in cases.

Spitzer points to the mountain of decisions by Judge Thomas Goethals in the Dekraai case, along with appellate reviews of the case and independent consultants examining the office, who all came to similar conclusions about a win-at-all costs environment inside a district attorney’s office without steady leadership.

“The U.S. Department of Justice is asking us to do a ton of document production when we already know what happened,” Spitzer told me.

“I’ve got an office to run here. I want to close this chapter and ensure it never happens again,” Spitzer argues. “We’ve got to move on. My office cannot be inundated with the legacy issues from the past.”

“My focus needs to be on public safety. We know what happened, why it happened. It’s been thoroughly discussed.”

Listening to Spitzer, it does seem odd – some might even say chicken – that the same oversight agencies that blew off the scandal – at least in the case of the federal DOJ, then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris and her predecessor Xavier Becerra – are now asking for tons of documents after the administration that committed the misconduct has been voted out of office.

“My office cannot be turned upside down doing additional inquiries by DOJ,” Spitzer said, noting that federal officials are looking into old cases.

Spitzer argues that oversight efforts should now be focused on reforming office practices, not continuing to investigate the past.

“We know what happened in Dekraai,” said Spitzer referring to the largest mass killer in Orange County history, whose case was complicated by the discovery by Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders of an illegal jailhouse informant program.

“I’m willing to work with the feds and the state AG and put the office on a probation with a whole series of reforms I’m willing to implement,” Spitzer said. “Isn’t that what we want?”

Spitzer tells me he’s trying to reach out to policymakers at the DOJ Civil Rights division to see if there’s a deal to be made.

“I’m willing to settle,” Spitzer said. “Everything is on the table.”

“I’m ready and willing to enter in settlement negotiations. Admit the wrongdoing of the prior administration and show the reforms we are implementing.”

He also seems ready to go after deputies if the evidence in the jailhouse scandal goes there.

“While they are part of team, I don’t have any independent loyalty or allegiance to them. I judge their conduct,” Spitzer said.

That’s an attitude that has been sorely lacking when it comes to investigating the years-old jailhouse snitch scandal, or the illegal-taping-of-inmate-phone calls scandal, or the widely-publicized jailhouse escape from the roof of the men’s central jail.

For some odd reason, no state or federal oversight agency ever seems to want any part of looking into Orange County law enforcement institutions.

Recently, our own U.S. Senator from California, Kamala Harris, has been criticized for her own lack of action on the jailhouse scandal in Orange County when she was our state attorney general.

Harris’ statements that she believed locals on the ground were taking action on the scandal were especially shocking to me because we, as reporters on the ground, have been reporting for years that no law enforcement officials took any kind of action on the issue.

Spitzer – who became a leading voice on the scandal as Rackauckas’ chief opponent – also said he was “taken aback when I saw Sen. Harris’ comments.”

“I’m very disappointed,” Spitzer said. “There was a real need and a real opportunity for the Attorney General to come in and make some clear statements about Orange County.”

Spitzer told me he is still waiting for California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office to call and update him on the supposed review they have ongoing on the jailhouse snitch scandal.

Indeed, when it came to the jailhouse snitch scandal it wasn’t all the big paychecks that took on the hard job of accountability.

It was a tenacious Assistant Public Defender, like Scott Sanders.

A steadfast, courageous judge, like Thomas Goethals.

It was relentless reporters, like Scott Moxley at the OC Weekly, Tony Saavedra at the OC Register, Rex Dalton and Thy Vo with the Voice of OC.

It was passionate and vocal family members of Dekraai victims, like Paul Wilson.

It was the loud voice of a law professor with UC Irvine’s law school (and a Voice of OC board member), Erwin Chemerinsky, who reached out publicly and privately to top law enforcement officials urging action, again and again.

All of these civilian actors really stepped up to defend the rule of law in Orange County.

Meanwhile, our law enforcement community – all the way to the top – just stood by.

Now, today, there’s a new district attorney in town.

And for the first time in a long while, we’re hearing a new standard set for Orange County.

“My job as a District Attorney,” Spitzer says, “is to judge the conduct of law enforcement, it’s not to make excuses.”