As ongoing DA cheating scandals continue to unfold, a pair of key endorsements in the campaign for District Attorney and judge have now been dropped.
Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer is losing his endorsement from his counterpart in neighboring San Diego County, as Spitzer faces accusations from within law enforcement that he improperly dropped the death penalty in a murder case to hide racial statements he made while discussing the case.
San Diego County DA Summer Stephan – who leads prosecutions in California’s second-largest county – rescinded her endorsement Thursday morning, according to Stephan’s campaign consultant.
“I can confirm San Diego DA Summer Stephan rescinded her endorsement of DA Spitzer,” her consultant Dan Rottenstreich said in a statement to Voice of OC.
Spitzer didn’t return a message for comment.
Chapman University professor Fred Smoller, who closely follows OC elections, said it’s “super uncommon” for endorsements to be pulled in DA and judge races.
Stephan was a registered Republican when she was elected in 2017, but later changed to “no party preference” in 2019, saying she was not a very political person.
Also losing an endorsement in recent days is Brahim Baytieh, a senior prosecutor whom Spitzer fired last week, citing an investigation into Baytieh allegedly unraveling a 2010 murder conviction by failing to turn over informant evidence.
Chapman University law professor Mario Mainero told Voice of OC he pulled his endorsement of Baytieh because the investigation report provided sufficient corroboration that Baytieh had failed to turn over evidence he was required to provide the defense in that case.
“I was under the same impression frankly that Todd was a year or two ago, that one of the clean ones, one of the ones who didn’t do anything like that, was Brahim Baytieh,” Mainero said in an interview Friday, referring to improper withholding of evidence.
“So when [Baytieh] asked me for an endorsement, I gave him one. But when an independent investigation suggests that is inaccurate, and when there’s been no response from Baytieh about it, I didn’t think I had a choice, if I was going to maintain my own standard here. So that’s why I pulled it.”
Baytieh didn’t return a message for comment.
Baytieh himself is a central witness to the racial remarks at the center of the death penalty controversy swirling around Spitzer that exploded into public view this week.
Baytieh wrote a pair of memos outlining how prosecutors objected when, during an Oct. 1 discussion on whether to seek the death penalty against a Black man, Spitzer made a comment about Black men advancing themselves by dating White women.
Spitzer has acknowledged making a statement about Black men dating white women during the meeting, but claims it was appropriate in the context of the death penalty discussion.
Yet prosecutors who were in the room considered it inappropriate to bring race into the death penalty deliberations, according to the internal memos.
The controversy over the memos was first reported on by Voice of OC last week. This week, Voice of OC and other media outlets obtained Baytieh’s memos, which were later unsealed by Judge Gregg L. Prickett on Thursday.
Among the documents unsealed Thursday is an explosive letter from the lead detective in one of Orange County’s most high-profile murder cases, in which Jamon Rayon Buggs is accused of murdering two people in Newport Beach in 2019 after breaking up with his White ex-girlfriend.
Newport Beach Lt. Court Depweg wrote that Spitzer had improperly ruined the death penalty case against Buggs, who is Black, by making inappropriate racial remarks and then trying to cover it up.
“It was disappointing that [a prosecutor] and so many of his colleagues would try and cover this matter up as we all know the ‘cover up is always worse than the crime,’ ” Depweg wrote.
“In my twenty plus years of law enforcement experience, I had never heard of an entire district attorney unit being removed from communicating with the lead agency in the prosecution of a homicide,” he added.
Depweg said he’s been told by multiple current and former DA officials that Spitzer “made an unsolicited, derogatory, and racist comment about Black men/persons” at an Oct. 1 meeting on whether to seek the death penalty against Jamon Rayon Buggs, who is Black.
[Click here to read the memos that were unsealed by Judge Prickett on Thursday: Internal DA memos and the letter from the lead police detective in Newport Beach.]
In response, Spitzer said there were legal reasons communication was cut off between the DA’s office and the police department, but would not address the cover-up allegations or how he treated the victim’s families.
“The District Attorney’s Office was very limited in what we could say because we had already gone to the judge and the issue was being litigated in Court,” Spitzer said in a statement provided by his spokeswoman Kimberly Edds.
Edds didn’t have an answer when asked if Spitzer would comment about the cover-up allegations, and why the victims’ families apparently were not informed that he decided against the death penalty, despite requirements under Marsy’s Law.
Voice of OC asked Spitzer and Edds on Friday why Spitzer decided not to pursue the death penalty against Buggs, and when he made that decision. They did not provide an answer.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.