Prosecutor Gary LoGalbo left a hastily-called June 19 hearing in Orange County's central courthouse and oddly declared himself victorious in a clash with defense lawyers over two jailhouse snitches, who for years have conned new Southern California arrestees into giving unwitting confessions to the government.
A week earlier, LoGalbo convinced Superior Court Judge Steven Bromberg to ban his courtroom opponents, defense lawyers Stephen Crandall and Dave Swanson, from revealing the names of the taxpayer-funded confidential informants (CIs) as they represent two accused defendants in a special circumstances homicide.
The cop-turned-deputy-DA insists his intentions are noble.
"The People's sole concern is to limit the potentially detrimental ramifications of information regarding the identity of the CI's, their backgrounds and confidential [jailhouse] operation information from entering the public domain," LoGalbo wrote in a June 5 brief advertising a concern that disclosure of the alleged secrets would place the snitches' lives in danger.
It was a brazenly disingenuous claim, especially by a veteran officer of the court. The CIs identities (Raymond Cuevas and Jose Paredes) as well as their backgrounds and tactics have been in the public domain for years. For example, Paredes' court files document that he, a serial killer facing life in prison, worked as a snitch and won a drastic, 2012 reduction in charges to assault with a deadly weapon. Indeed, those public records reveal his rat services on at least 10 identified criminal cases at that point: BA361451, BA388223, BA358868, BA381473, GA070794, BA379962, BA358363, BA3661611, BA392902 and BA389963. If LoGalbo missed those details, perhaps he also overlooked media reports.
More than 6,625 hours before the prosecutor made his secrecy argument, the Weekly used court records--including in People v. Scott Dekraai--to publish a cover story, "Meet OC and LA Law Enforcement's Favorite Rats." That Sept. 10, 2014, story named Cuevas and Paredes, outlined their extensive, Mexican Mafia backgrounds and described their jailhouse operational tactics, which have included illegal acts. In violation of well-established U.S. Supreme Court rules, the duo has used threats of violence and, in other cases, promises of illicit bounty to entice confessions. Three months after the Weekly report, the Orange County Register, the largest daily paper in the area, ran a similar article on its front pages.
On June 17, I wrote a post-gag order column outlining the absurdity of anyone still pretending Cuevas and Paredes are cloaked in secrecy and answered why members of the Orange County district attorney's office (OCDA)--it's not just LoGalbo--are playing games. Nobody questions appropriately conducted jailhouse snitch operations or valid protective orders. It's alarming, however, that OCDA wants to shield itself from criticism about an informant program that has been undeniably productive in securing convictions but is also irrefutably tainted. In March, Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals recused the entire OCDA in Dekraai, a death penalty case, for informant-related shenanigans.
Prosecutors initially worked for years to hide that cheating by refusing to turn over relevant records to defense lawyers, who--in some cases--were kept clueless about their existence. Media revelations of such tactics in the last 16 months sparked public debate, pushed prominent members of the legal community to call for a U.S. Department of Justice probe and forced local prosecutors to begin surrendering informant-related documents to defense teams. In the last nine months, OCDA has sought ways to keep the informant scandal confined to the courthouse, where favorable judges, often ex-prosecutors, can seal information from the public.
Prosecutors label my observations erroneous.
"There's no effort to hide the ball here," LoGalbo said during a telephone interview where he refused to acknowledge I'd accurately identified Cuevas and Paredes.
Susan Kang Schroeder, OCDA chief of staff, said during the same call, "We aren't trying to hide anything."
But on June 19 Bromberg summoned LoGalbo and his defense opponents to his courtroom, acknowledged reading my article and didn't mask his frustration with the prosecution.
"The Court advised counsel that now that two of the CI's have been identified accurately in a published article, there is no compelling need to maintain their secrecy," the judge recorded in official minutes of the hearing.
LoGalbo tried a newer rationale for secrecy that raised more questions than it answered. Releasing the Cuevas and Paredes records to the defense without a protective order could jeopardize "ongoing" jail operations where duped targets haven't yet been charged, he argued. If it's true that law enforcement agencies continue to employ the duo long after their identities became public, then the rats' physical security really isn't a big concern but rather an excuse to hide information.
Not surprisingly, the prosecutor's maneuvering didn't sway Bromberg. The judge "vacated" the week-old, OCDA-sponsored protective order and made clear he wasn't going to rely solely on LoGalbo's word any longer. He gave the deputy DA until June 26 to supply him all the records in question so he can take responsibility to assure the defense isn't shortchanged in People v. Gabriel Calderon and People v. Richard Madriles.
If most court observers would consider a vacated pro-prosecution ruling and a sudden demand to surrender OCDA records as a loss, LoGalbo--who serves on the part-time faculty at Cal State Fullerton--is spinning it differently: He won. His logic? The judge's moves were designed to protect eventual convictions if they are appealed. And, he says Bromberg may still block Crandall and Swanson from talking to individuals outside the formal defense teams without first getting signed confidentiality agreements.
"I welcome [the June 19 rulings]," said the deputy DA, who--like pretending the CIs names remain a mystery--is now acting like a fantasy-land mindset didn't ignite judicial frustration.
It's rare when a judge in Orange County firmly rebukes a prosecutor, but Bromberg--a gregarious, former Newport Beach mayor--believed his questions about OCDA tactics related to providing tardy, incomplete or misleading informant discovery were dodged at the last two hearings. There's no guessing about that point. The judge memorialized he'd received "no cogent response" to his inquiries from LoGalbo.
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Asked to explain Bromberg's frustration, the usually loquacious prosecutor declined. "I can't speak to that," said LoGalbo. His reason? An answer would reveal secrets the public shouldn't know.