Former DA suspected criminal wrongdoing in Orange County snitch scandal, letters reveal
As early as 2015, then-Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas acknowledged there was evidence of criminal wrongdoing on the part of sheriff’s deputies and one prosecutor in the county’s jailhouse informant scandal, but passed on a probe because of a potential conflict, documents show.
Rackauckas persuaded the state Attorney General’s Office to conduct a criminal investigation and later said in correspondence that records emerging in the scandal “may constitute evidence of the commission of criminal wrongdoing.”
Rackauckas’ statements are the first public acknowledgment by the county’s former top prosecutor that crimes may have been committed in his office and at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. Previously, Rackauckas had said publicly there was no evidence of intentional wrongdoing by his staff.
The statements are contained in letters to the Attorney General’s Office, dated March 18, 2015, and June 16, 2016, that were obtained by the Southern California News Group. Despite Rackauckas’ suspicions of wrongdoing — namely potential perjury in court hearings on the use of jailhouse informants — the state probe has apparently ended recently with no criminal charges in sight and no answers being offered, publicly or privately.
The state office, now run by by Attorney General Xavier Becerra, did not return a request for comment Monday.
The time limit for filing perjury charges has either expired or will soon expire, depending on which legal formula is used.
Recently elected District Attorney Todd Spitzer says he is frustrated by the lack of answers and had depended on the criminal investigation by the state and a separate civil investigation by the federal justice department to guide his next moves.
“I had very reasonable expectations that those agencies would have made findings and recommendations by now. It has been four years and we still do not have a single finding or recommendation,” Spitzer said, in a written statement.
“I have repeatedly asked the state Attorney General’s Office about the status of their investigation and have not received an answer.”
Before the office went silent, a state prosecutor said during a recent court hearing that it was no longer investigating three sheriff’s deputies accused by a judge of not being truthful during hearings on the jailhouse snitches. Spitzer has since launched an internal inquiry on the county prosecutors’ use of jailhouse informants. He says a conflict of interest — as first cited by Rackauckas — prevents him from including sheriff’s deputies in his efforts.
Carrie Braun, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Department, said newly elected Sheriff Don Barnes is conducting an internal investigation and is looking at which policies and procedures may need to be changed to keep the jailhouse informant problem from recurring.
Spitzer is traveling to Washington, D.C., this week to meet with top Department of Justice officials to talk about expediting their investigation so he can “return to the business of seeking justice for victims in Orange County.”
Spitzer unseated 20-year incumbent Rackauckas in November after promising to clean up an office that auditors said had a “win-at-all-costs” attitude. The Rackauckas’ letters show that while the former district attorney denied intentionally misusing jailhouse informants, he admitted privately that one prosecutor and unknown sheriff deputies may have tried to cover it up on the witness stand.
Hearings on the misuse of informants took place during proceedings for confessed mass shooter Scott Dekraai, who killed eight people at a Seal Beach beauty salon in 2011. What began as a look into the use of informants on the Dekraai case morphed into a three-year court hearing on how prosecutors and police illegally used informants on other inmates — even those who had been formally charged, in violation of their civil rights.
Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals, who presided over the hearing, was so troubled by what he heard that he removed the District Attorney’s Office from the case and blocked the death penalty for Dekraai, who got eight terms of life in prison.
Goethals also accused former gang prosecutor Erik Petersen of falsely blaming a former federal prosecutor for not turning over evidence to defense lawyers. Additionally, Goethals said Deputies Ben Garcia, Seth Tunstall and, later, William Grover, either lied or intentionally misled the court in their testimony. More than a year after they testified, sheriff’s documents — called special handling logs — emerged, documents that the deputies had indicated did not exist.
“Having made an initial review of the logs, it is the belief of the OCDA that the content of the logs and the non-production of the logs during the previous hearings of the Dekraai case may constitute evidence of the commission of criminal wrongdoing,” wrote Rackauckas in 2016.
Petersen left Orange County and ultimately became Washington County chief deputy attorney in Omaha, Nebraska. Deputies Tunstall and Grover recently retired. Garcia remains on administrative leave.