Is Orange County’s criminal justice system racist?
It’s a question that’s hovered over Orange County’s DA election all year long.
And on Wednesday night it played out right in front of over a hundred residents who came out to the local Elks Lodge in Fullerton to hear a candidate debate hosted by the North OC Bar Association.
During the debate, Tatiana Turner – a Black woman who says District Attorney Todd Spitzer is unfairly prosecuting her for attempted murder for running over two counter protestors at a protest in 2020 – was ejected from the debate by the moderator after being vocal during questions and answers from candidates.
That came on the heels of questions being raised about the event’s moderator being a friend of Spitzer and a campaign contributor.
Spitzer – the County’s top prosecutor, leads an office besieged by scandals on numerous fronts – and has found himself on the defensive for months having to address allegations of racial bias and failing to protect employees from harassment.
Wednesday’s debate is the only public forum Spitzer plans on attending where he would publicly face off against the three lawyers looking to take his job in the June primary election.
In mid-February, documents emerged showing Spitzer was accused by his staff of making inappropraite racial remarks when deciding whether to seek the death penalty against a Black defendant, Jamon Rayon Buggs.
During the death penalty decision meeting, Spitzer asked prosecutors about the race of the defendants’ former girlfriends and said he had “seen Black men date White women in certain circles in order to have others around them be more accepting,” the DA has acknowledged.
When asked about those comments at Wednesday’s debate and if race plays a role in any prosecution, Spitzer said that the jury found Buggs guilty on all counts.
“It is my duty to always inquire both about what we believe we can prove in terms of our theory of the case beyond a reasonable doubt and explore all defenses. I made a decision not to pursue the death penalty because…,” Spitzer said before Kent cut him off for time.
Candidate Bryan Chehock said Spitzer’s comments were racist.
“That is just unacceptable from any public official to use language and racist comments particularly during a death penalty case,” Chehock said.
Spitzer has faced criticism for prosecuting Turner, a Black activist, for attempted murder for running over two opposing protesters as she left a rally but not prosecuting a driver who drove through a crowd of Black Live Matters supporters at a rally in Newport Beach.
Turner, a staunch critic of Spitzer, was ejected by security from the debate at the request of moderator Jeff Kent – a groomsman at Spitzer’s wedding and a major contributor to the DA’s campaign over the years – after coughing as Spitzer addressed a question on police accountability.
Spitzer publicly encouraged Kent to have her removed.
“This is like the 20th time,” he said. “She needs to leave.”
Kent had already issued several warnings to various audience members who interrupted Spitzer and other candidates throughout the debate, including Turner. He also warned attendees from the start that he would ask people to leave if they interrupted the candidates.
Turner, who interrupted the debate a handful of times, questioned why she was singled out.
“That’s not fair to keep pointing me out. That’s racist,” she said.
Turner ended up leaving the room after Kent threatened to halt the debate.
None of the three other candidates interjected about her removal.
Kent, president of the North Orange County Bar Association, contributed $8,600 to Spitzer’s campaigns since 2011 including the maximum allowed $2,200 to Spitzer’s current DA campaign, according to public campaign finance filings.
Kent acknowledged his relationship with Spitzer at the beginning of the debate and said he has contributed an average of $800 annually to Spitzer’s various campaigns since 2002.
“I met Todd while working in the DA’s office in 1992. I was a groomsman at his wedding and I want to let you know that I consider him to be a friend,” Kent said at the debate yesterday.
Voice of OC reported on Kent’s campaign contributions prior to the debate.
Kent said that after his contributions were pointed out, he asked the board to consider finding a replacement but it was too short notice to get someone else.
“I would have made these disclosures earlier, unfortunately, and quite frankly, I didn’t see the relevance because the way our moderator is done, I simply ask questions,” he said. “I’m not the one that decides what questions will be asked.”
The debate occurred a little more than a week after Spitzer skipped out on a debate held by nonprofits in Santa Ana.
And it doesn’t look like Spitzer will attend one scheduled for next week.
But Spitzer wasn’t the only one who had to publicly address a scandal last night.
Opposing candidate Pete Hardin also found himself having to defend against allegations of sexual harrassment.
In fact, many of the questions had to do with recent scandals involving Spitzer and Hardin, with questions from the audience reserved till the end – some of which had to do with police accountability.
Residents have raised concerns about public safety, racial disparities in prosecution rates and the District Attorney’s willingness to hold police officers accountable for misconduct.
The election also comes on the heels of a rise in hate crimes in Orange County, according to a report by the OC Human Relations Commission and concerns from some residents about the county leading the state in transferring inmates to Immigration and Custom Enforcement for possible deportation.
Last night those who attended the debate got an opportunity to see just where the candidates stand on some of those issues and a rare chance to publicly question their top prosecutor.
Spitzer – who was elected in 2018 – has faced a string of allegations from career DA prosecutors of racial bias and failing to protect workers from harassment – even retaliating against a female prosecutor who reported harassment by Spitzer’s friend and best man at his wedding, Gary LoGalbo.
A county HR investigation confirmed LoGalbo had preyed on multiple female subordinates at the DA’s office – and found that Spitzer was “not credible” when denying he had attempted to retaliate against the first female prosecutor who had come forward about the harassment.
A second county HR probe found that Spitzer violated county workplace abuse policies by sending that original harassment investigation – which contained details that can identify the victims – to every employee in his office, and by trashing one of the victims in an interview with Voice of OC.
At the debate, Spitzer called LoGalbo a “pig” and said he was ashamed of their relationship that went back 25 years.
“I stood up for all the victims and said not only should they be properly compensated, that the county should apologize, our county counsel released a confidential report over my objection, and deemed it a public record. That was outrageous. Our county counsel betrayed the women in our office,” he said.
Both Candidates Chehock and Hardin said Spitzer should take responsibility for promoting LoGalbo.
Spitzer said following what happened with LoGalbo, managers and employees have been trained on sexual harrassment.
“I am deeply disappointed that people working with Gary LoGalbo here in North Court never reported to their senior assistants or above that Mr. LoGalbo engaged in the kind of behavior he was,” he said.
Spitzer has also faced allegations from his own staff that he improperly made racial remarks when he and other prosecutors were deciding whether to seek the death penalty against a Black defendant.
He also fired Brahim Baytieh, one of the prosecutors who raised those concerns, for reportedly withholding evidence from defense attorneys in a murder trial.
At the debate, Spitzer denied he fired Baytieh, who is running for judge in the June primary, for political reasons.
“It was a murder case. He didn’t turn over evidence,” he said. “ Brahim was, and I believed at the time, a phenomenal person, and he’s beloved in the office but he engaged in this conduct and I had to make a tough decision to let him go.”
Spitzer said he watched the last execution in California of a man who he said killed witnesses to keep them from speaking at his trial.
“It was very hard to watch a man die but he deserved to die,” he said. “We have turned this state upside down. We put the defendants first like Mr. Hardin’s policies and we’ve forgotten about the victims. This is about protecting victims, not the defendants,” Spitzer said.
When asked why he had failed to hold police accountable, Spitzer said that wasn’t true.
But critics – some who were in the audience – disagree.
They point to the Kurt Reinhold shooting where Spitzer cleared Sheriff’s deputies earlier this year.
They also point to the Hector Hernandez shooting in Fullerton where Orange County prosecutors choose not to pursue charges against a Fullerton Police officer.
Asked about a lack of women and people of color in senior management positions, Spitzer said he promoted women on his first day of office and half of all prosecutors in the office are women.
It’s unclear how many prosecutors of color Spitzer has hired during his four years as DA but on Wednesday night, he said there needs to be way more prosecutors representing people of color.
“We must recruit, and bring in people of color into the District Attorney’s office. It’s one of my top priorities,” Spitzer said.
In his opening comments, Pete Hardin, a Marine combat veteran and former prosecutor, called out Spitzer for losing endorsements from other elected DAs across California after his racial statements came to light.
“He forgot to mention that he advertised endorsements that you’ve never got. How come you didn’t mention that, Todd?” Hardin asked Spitzer directly.
The former prosecutor himself has faced criticism over a memo about how he allegedly treated women when working as a prosecutor at the DA’s office.
When Hardin was asked about the allegations, he said Spitzer put out “baseless allegations” to distract from the “failures” of his own administration.
“Todd Spitzer has been at the center of an ever-widening sexual harassment scandal. An independent investigator found that he violated the county’s abusive conduct policy and found him not credible,” he said.
Spitzer said Hardin was lying and that the memo was real.
“No one’s complained about me but if Pete Hardin were the DA, every woman in the office would be scared to death based upon his history with women in the office and the fact he had to resign and move to the [U.S. Attorney’s] Office, because that memo is real,” Spitzer said.
“It’s transparent, solid and true.”
In the memo, Hardin was also accused of adultery during his time as a Marine.
Hardin once again called it “baseless accusations” from Spitzer.
“The fact is I fell in love with a woman and we started a family and I had been separated from my ex-wife for over two years,” he said. “If committing to being a great dad and settling down with my family is wrong, I don’t want to be right.”
Hardin said he would create a reporting system that goes around the head of the DA’s office so people feel comfortable reporting sexual harassment.
Throughout his campaign and the debate, Spitzer has routinely compared Hardin and his proposed policies to Los Angeles County’s progressive District Attorney George Gascón.
Spitzer has made the centerpiece of his campaign message that he’s trying to protect OC from turning into LA.
When asked about that comparison, Hardin said he wanted to “progress past an era of scandals and lawsuits that cost the county millions of dollars and detering trust in our criminal justice system,” adding that his policies were different from both Gascon and Spitzer.
Hardin said if elected he won’t seek the death penalty in cases because it further victimizes survivors and betrays taxpayers. He also noted the state’s moratorium on executions.
“All we are doing is making the survivors go through decades of appeals that retraumatize them at every turn, and throwing good money off the bat on a system that doesn’t work,” he said. “I will seek life without parole when it’s appropriate.”
Candidate Bryan Chehock, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice who’s assigned to the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the DA’s position is about trust and that he is foregoing campaign contributions from any source.
When asked about his stance on the death penalty, Chehock agreed with Hardin that it was a symbolic sentence in California.
He also said sometimes in cases, symbols matter and that some “horrendous crimes” do warrant the death penalty.
“I understand these are very, very rare circumstances, you have to take into account mental illness and circumstances in the individual case and I would never pursue the death penalty if I didn’t have unanimous consent from the victim’s family,” he said at the debate.
Chehock said that police departments should not be able to investigate their own misconduct.
“What we need to do is actually try to make the justice system more representative of the community it protects. If that happens, you will definitely see a decrease in police reports of misconduct,” he said.
Chehock said to address sexual harrassment, there should be an office run by people who don’t report to Spitzer for employees to report to incidents too.
“It doesn’t do any good to continuously train managers on a process that obviously didn’t work in the District Attorney’s office. If you give people a safe place to simply levy complaints and be heard, you’re going to have more comfort within the office,” he said.
Chehock also railed against Spitzer’s explanation on Baytieh’s firing.
“The fact that Mr. Spitzer is now claiming it took him three years to figure out this individual was in fact not turning over evidence in 2010 is either a lie or incompetence on his part,” Chehock said.
“You don’t fire somebody for something that occurred in 2010 days after he discloses your racist and derogatory comments.”
When asked about Hardin being compared to Gascon, Chehock said that name calling and labeling candidates one way or another is not really beneficial for voters.
“We need to do better in terms of having meaningful discussions to address actual issues that are occurring in Orange County. ‘#NoLAinOC’ is not a substantive discussion,” he said.
Candidate Michael Jacobs is a former Orange County District Attorney’s Office supervisor and prosecutor for 30 years.
Jacobs was fired from the District Attorney’s office in 2001 after asking the state attorney general to investigate former DA Tony Rackauckas for allegedly shutting down investigations into friends and political allies. He was later rehired in 2003.
The former prosecutor himself is not without controversy and has faced allegations of withholding evidence about jailhouse informants from defense attorneys, according to the OC Register.
Jacobs said he has become a strong proponent of the death penalty and said he tried five capital cases successfully.
“One of my suspects has been executed and I believe it’s something that we should pursue,” he said.
“I don’t think Newsom is going to be governor forever and once he’s gone, I think that penalty would become a reality again and deserves to be and should be and if you saw some of the things I’ve seen it would convert you, too.”
He also said in response to a question about DA’s Office management that he didn’t feel women and people of color were underrepresented.
When addressing the question on the timing of Baytieh’s firing, Jacobs said he had warned Spitzer years ago about misconduct by Baytieh and believed he should be fired but Spitzer didn’t do anything about it.
He also said there was a problem in holding police accountable in both Spitzer’s and his predecessor’s tenures.
Jacobs, who served as Spitzer’s own supervisor years ago at the DA’s office, said the incumbent has compromised and undermined major cases.
The Next DA Debate
The next debate will be hosted by the League of Women Voters of North Orange County on Tuesday May 10 from 7 to 8:30 p.m. on Zoom.
Spitzer has declined to attend that debate, citing a schedule conflict.
Questions from the public must be submitted to the league by 6 p.m. this Friday with a two question limit per person. While the league did not mention where to send the question, their general email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here for more information.
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.