Watchdog: County ponders jailhouse snitch investigation

Two county supervisors on Monday will consider launching a county-run investigation into the district attorney’s use of jailhouse snitches and the withholding of evidence.

In a report released late Friday, the county’s recently hired consultant on law enforcement oversight recommended the Office of Independent Review be expanded to take a lead role in investigating accusations that local authorities illegally used jailhouse informants.

Special Counsel Michael Gennaco is pushing to expand the civilian office’s oversight role past the Sheriff’s Department to include the district attorney, public defender and all county offices – with an eye toward taking on the informant crisis and other problems.

“It’s a holistic approach,” said Gennaco, a former federal prosecutor who previously was chief attorney for the Los Angeles Office of Independent Review. “I want the elected stakeholders to begin thinking about this as a possible way to enhance oversight.”

A county committee comprised of two supervisors, Chairman Todd Spitzer and Andrew Do – both former prosecutors – will hold a special meeting Monday to review the proposal.

The state Attorney General’s Office has launched an investigation, but a county probe would be the first time supervisors weighed in with an independent civilian review of a controversy that has upended several criminal cases in Orange County and threatens to unravel others.

In July, a memo from the county counsel to the Board of Supervisors said the U.S. Department of Justice also is “keeping an eye” on the county’s response to the jailhouse informant controversy.

The Sheriff’s Department has begun an internal probe into the use of informants. Also, the district attorney has assembled a panel of outside experts to look at the issue, which the Public Defender’s Office contends has been a problem in the county for 30 years.

Gennaco came into the picture in August, when supervisors narrowly voted to hire him for a four-month, $40,000 contract to help oversee the Sheriff’s Department and its embattled civilian review office headed by Stephen Connelly. Gennaco previously investigated the 2012 death of Kelly Thomas, a mentally ill homeless man who died after an altercation with Fullerton police.

On Friday night, Gennaco said a more centralized approach is needed in the investigation of jailhouse informants.

“Right now the departments are working independently of each other,” he said. “Could it be more helpful to have a concerted effort?”

Spitzer welcomes the idea of the county looking into the informant scandal.

“The Board of Supervisors is supposed to oversee all county departments but has been largely helpless to weigh in on critical issues impacting law enforcement because of a weak office of independent review,” Spitzer said. “A model to build community trust and awareness is critical.”

Supervisor Do offered similar sentiments Friday night. “I’m committed to increasing independent oversight of every aspect of county government, including law enforcement,” he said.

“The people of Orange County expect their government to be accountable and transparent … . At next week’s meeting, the public has an opportunity to voice their opinions. Before making any decision on an oversight system, I look forward to hearing from my constituents about the right approach for our county.”

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas’ chief of staff, Susan Kang Schroeder, declined comment late Friday because the office had not seen the report. Sheriff Sandra Hutchens also declined for the same reason.

The use of jailhouse informants on defendants who have hired lawyers and the withholding of evidence has resulted in lower sentences in two murder cases and two attempted murder cases. Missteps also prompted a Superior Court judge to remove the entire District Attorney’s Office from a high-profile mass murder case.

The revelations have reverberated nationally. On Sept. 30, a New York Times editorial called for the U.S. Department of Justice to launch a “thorough investigation,” citing “the blatant and systematic misconduct in the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.”

Rackauckas has said his prosecutors made “missteps” but characterized those as unintentional.

He’s also conducted an in-house investigation that has resulted in policies aimed at improving the way the office tracks the use of informants. Rackauckas also has enlisted a committee of legal experts to review his office’s use of jailhouse informants.

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