Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD) Lieutenant David Johnson, who pockets more than $298,000 annually in taxpayer-funded compensation and will continue to do so every year for the rest of his life, seems like he'd be the friendly neighbor eager to smile, wave and say "hello" every time you saw him. Johnson might even volunteer to fix your broken lawn mower for free or feed your dog while you're on vacation. Think: a modern day Gomer Pyle without the tenor capability or, sadly, the innocence.
According to Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals, this veteran public servant carrying a state-issued badge, gun and handcuffs is a troublesome character. Entering Goethals' courtroom this week to involuntarily testify under oath in the ongoing jailhouse-informant scandal, Johnson, a former Garden Grove cop, was the one officer warped OCSD upper management feared would tell the truth. The agency's honorable staff, whom you might label the silent majority, prayed for the opposite.
Those Weekly readers who've followed the scandal know it focuses largely on OCSD Special Handling unit jail deputies orchestrating unconstitutional scams, which they called "capers" amongst themselves, to secretly help District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, a proven habitual liar in the eyes of justices at the California Court of Appeal, win criminal convictions against unwitting defendants with perjured testimony. Johnson has supervised the unit. That's why Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, who single-handedly uncovered the illegal acts in 2014, summoned him to the witness stand inside Orange County's central courthouse in Santa Ana.
The scandal, which has earned national shock, is as much about hiding evidence of police corruption from juries as it is about well-compensated government employees telling big lies. Local law enforcement—the DA and sheriff—thought nobody would ever discover they'd rigged the criminal-justice system to ensure Scott Dekraai, Sanders' client and a man who committed the worst mass killing in county history, receives the death penalty. In other words, in a decidedly death-penalty-happy locale, our badged idiots cheated even when unnecessary. Now, after four years of embarrassing revelations, Dekraai might escape the ultimate state punishment and receive a term of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
At this point, it's beyond debate that Sheriff Sandra Hutchens doesn't care what happens to Dekraai or how the families of his eight victims feel. Hutchens, who, like Rackauckas, laughably calls the snitch scandal imaginary, just wants to survive the controversy and continue hailing herself as a virtuous cop as she parades through community events where ignorant citizens applaud her presence. Each time I review the plethora of her deceitful public pronouncements, I'm awed by the audacity.
Lies by Rackauckas or Hutchens aren't the annoying but meaningless moves of a lazy clerk at the courthouse public-records room. These people are paid generously to be guardians of justice and the rule of law. Yet, in Orange County, our two top cops couldn't be more slimy.
Let's return to Johnson, the would-be golly-gee Gomer Pyle. Johnson took the stand this week and lied his ass off. I didn't birth that fact. Goethals, a former high-ranking homicide prosecutor and a person who has repeatedly proven his honor even when painful, did. Unamused, the judge called him "credibility challenged" — with good reason. Despite mounds and mounds and mounds of evidence otherwise, Johnson claimed the Special Handling Unit couldn't have cheated wth informants or hidden informant records because it didn't use informants. The line mimicked Hutchens' media lies.
Johnson played dumb during his courtroom examination by Sanders. For example, after the OCSD lieutenant claimed he adamantly forbade Special Handling deputies to employ jailhouse snitches because of their notorious unreliability, the public defender placed a document written by Johnson on a large courtroom screen. It specifically stated that Special Handling deputies' formal responsibilities included handling and maintaining jailhouse "confidential informants."
Another document, one that had been taped to the wall in the Special Handling unit, also highlighted the deputies' obligation to cultivate and manage "informants." Though in charge of the unit for two years, Johnson claimed he'd never once seen that document in a tiny 10-foot-by-10-foot office. With the judge watching in amazement, the deputy asserted, "It just wasn't something I was going to allow."
The scandal has shown the willingness of Hutchens' crew to play lame word game in hopes of avoiding the production of evidence responsive to Goethals' lawfully issued court orders in Dekraai. On the witness stand, a heavily sweating Johnson insisted that informants weren't informants, but rather "sources of information," and that informant handlers in his agency weren't informant handlers, but rather "facilitators of information." Such games were part of OCSD's supposed plausible deniability if ever caught not surrendering demanded records on snitch activities.
But if you really want to know the depth of our sheriff's corruption, consider this fact: Having determined Johnson was the one guy who might tell the truth about informant scandal cheating, Hutchens learned in late 2016 that the lieutenant planned to soon retire, which would have placed him outside her power. She immediately proclaimed he was a target of an Internal Affairs office investigation that could impact his retirement.
The supposed subject of his wrongdoing? His role in the Dekraai case, which, oddly, the sheriff has otherwise claimed her staff's innocence. There's also this: Johnson isn't even remotely tied to the case. He didn't work that investigation and wasn't in the jails when her other deputies committed illegal acts with informants who have gone unpunished.
Honest OCSD employees believe the sheriff's tactic compromised an ethically weak Johnson.
Sanders asked the lieutenant if he felt he'd been the victim of an intimidation tactic. Oh, no, he responded unconvincingly. But the attorney got him to admit he was angry by a move he saw as unfair and grossly unwarranted.
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At the end of his testimony and with the prompting of a hard-charging Sanders, Johnson made a forced admission. Seated in his direct line of sight in the back of the courtroom during two days' of testimony, the sheriff had placed Tracy L. Morris, one of her operatives, who takes home more than $295,000 annually from public coffers.
What is she doing there? Sanders asked.
Johnson said Morris told him privately before he took the witness stand that she was there "to monitor" his testimony.
Don't be surprised if Hutchens gives him a promotion and a pay raise before he retires.