County supervisors voted Tuesday to provide the Orange County grand jury with $400,000 to pay for two lawyers who will serve as special investigators in a probe into the alleged misuse of jailhouse informants by local sheriff’s deputies and prosecutors.
The lawyers -- attorney Fred Woocher, an election law expert and former special counsel to the California Attorney General, and Andrea Ordin, a former U.S. attorney and sitting member of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission -- were handpicked by the Attorney General. They will aid the grand jury’s civil investigation, which hadn’t been publicly disclosed prior to Tuesday.
In their roles, the investigators will assess whether policies and practices of the District Attorney’s Office and sheriff’s department are illegal and to determine how effective District Attorney Tony Rackauckas has been in implementing recommendations his handpicked investigatory committee issued in December. That report said a lack of supervision and training in his office had fostered a “win-at-all-cost” mentality among some prosecutors.
The Attorney General’s office said it is rare for grand juries to request special investigative assistance. The office declined to comment on the criteria it considers when deciding whether to grant or deny those requests.
It is unclear when the grand jury’s probe began. But Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff at the District Attorney’s Office, confirmed that the office had already provided documents to the grand jury and some employees had already provided testimony in the investigation.
“We welcome any outside inquiry in this matter and look forward to seeing the results,” Schroeder said.
For 3 1/2 years, Orange County’s justice system has been rocked by what has come to be known as the “snitch scandal,” in which the district attorney’s office and sheriff’s department stand accused of improperly using jail informants and the withholding of evidence beneficial to the defense. The clandestine informant program was discovered by Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders while representing mass murderer Scott Dekraai and convicted killer Daniel Wozniak. The fallout has caused at least six high-profile criminal cases to be altered or overturned
Over the past 1 1/2 years, the California Attorney General’s Office has been investigating Orange County’s court system and accusations by a judge that two deputies testified dishonestly.
The Attorney General simultaneously has defended the District Attorney’s office in a state appeals court, arguing it should not be removed from the case of Seal Beach mass murderer Scott Dekraai over concerns that false testimony may have violated his right to a fair trial. That appeal that was shot down Tuesday, upholding Judge Thomas M. Goethals’ decision to remove the District Attorney from the case.
State law allows grand juries to ask the Attorney General to hire special investigators on their behalf, with the county footing the bill.
But an online review of Orange County budgets dating back to 2000 showed no other grand jury requests for additional funding. At Tuesday’s board meeting, Supervisor Todd Spitzer and County Counsel Leon Page said they had never heard of an Orange County grand jury requesting a special investigator.
Sheriff's department spokesman Lt. Mark Stichter said Tuesday he was not aware of the grand jury’s investigation but affirmed that the department would cooperate.
“We always make ourselves available to the grand jury to answer questions and to provide information to them,” Stichter said. “They’re the grand jury, they can make the decision to do what they feel is best.”
The additional cost of hiring two investigators nearly quadrupled Orange County’s budget for the 2016-17 grand jury, which was only $145,000 before the addition.
Woocher and Ordin, the two attorneys hired as special investigators, could not be reached for comment Tuesday night.
November 22, 2016
The Orange County Register
By Jordan Graham and Tony Saavedra