Until recently, the United States Attorneys office—a division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which is supposedly conducting an independent probe of Tony Rackauckas’ district attorney’s office and Sandra Hutchens’ sheriff’s department in the Orange County jailhouse-informant scandal—had been performing a sly trick. They’d blocked jurors at the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse from hearing about the scandal, then used individuals tainted by that corruption for their own prosecutions. That stunt, which won federal Judge James V. Selna’s approval, hamstrung defense lawyers from fairly questioning the credibility of those government witnesses and led to a series of convictions.
It’s possible this tilted environment last year motivated Rackauckas and Hutchens—who, according to a series of judges, have run ethically challenged agencies—to toss a seemingly straightforward June 2017 methamphetamine case, People v. Joseph Martin Govey, into DOJ hands, where the matter’s connection to the informant scandal could be severed quietly. But the new case, USA v. Joseph Martin Govey, didn’t land in Selna’s hospitable courtroom. It was assigned to Cormac J. Carney, one of Selna’s U.S. District Court colleagues who historically demands hard answers from the government.
In mid-January, Assistant United States Attorney Bradley Marrett tried to convince the judge there’s been no hanky-panky and that Timothy Scott, Govey’s attorney, should be banned from mentioning the scandal in front of a future jury, even though Scott believes the controversy helps to explain the government’s zealous actions. The defense attorney’s position isn’t a stretch. In addition to unnecessarily making Govey a federal defendant without public rationale, prosecutors refused to accept his confession that the narcotics possession was for personal use. Instead, they want a jury to find him guilty of plotting to distribute his meth, a crime carrying harsher punishment in federal court than in state.
Given those circumstances, Scott considers the push for Govey, a onetime member of Public Enemy Number One (PEN1), to serve a mandatory minimum 10-year sentence shows law-enforcement officials have “their thumbs on the scales” of justice. He maintains Rackauckas and Hutchens had “a score to settle” with his client. He also aims to prove the point, principally during questioning of two DOJ witnesses, sheriff’s deputies Bryan Larson and Bill Beeman.
At the Jan. 17 hearing, Carney outlined two objectives: determining if Larson will testify at a trial, as well as the extent of the connection between Govey’s case and the jailhouse-informant drama. Marrett predicted his cooperation but demanded the judge hide from the jury that Larson, a Special Handling Unit deputy for several years, had taken the Fifth when asked about the scandal in a snitch-marred state murder case, People v. Eric Ortiz. (For those who need to brush up on their civics lessons, the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution protects individuals from being witnesses against themselves.)
Carney was unamused.
Constitutionally banned from questioning pretrial inmates who’ve been charged and have lawyers, Special Handling deputies employed snitches to fool government targets into talking, then pretended in courtrooms that the information had been obtained without police involvement. To cover up these activities, deputies hid, destroyed and doctored agency records before committing perjury in Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals’ courtroom, where the scandal played out in People v. Scott Dekraai.
“You have a problem, Mr. Marrett,” said Carney. “Deputy Larson invoked the Fifth while in uniform in court in a murder case. That’s very significant. He invoked when called by the defense and was asked about [jail-informant program] misconduct. Then he’s willing to testify when called by the government. How can I keep that away from the jury? There’s an inference there is a government bias, but that’s for a jury to decide.”
Marrett asserted that Larson would “clear the air” about why he’d taken the Fifth in Ortiz. This resulted in Larson telling the judge he would have answered all questions in that case if the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs (AOCDS) hadn’t provided bad legal advice. (Union officials denied that tale, claiming their lawyers always give sound counseling.) For Carney, though, it doesn’t matter what story the deputy tells. “He’s going to have to explain that inconsistent position [in front of the jury]. If this is a vindictive, biased prosecution, [Govey] has a right to try to expose it,” the judge stated.
Adamant that questioning Larson’s honesty was “going far afield” from determining Govey’s guilt, the prosecutor took more than 20 minutes before conceding the point, a fact that frustrated the President George W. Bush appointee. “This judge,” Carney said, “ain’t gonna say, ‘Never mind’ and, ‘Let’s go forward’ [with jurors clueless about events].”
When Carney noted the presence of Scott Sanders, the Orange County assistant public defender who exposed the snitch scandal, Scott (the private defense lawyer) revealed the two had discussed Larson’s connection and underhanded tactics used by local law enforcement.
That development must have unsettled the six DOJ prosecutors present. Though they’d hoped to thwart the scandal from ever entering the federal courthouse, these assistant United States attorneys felt the law of unintended consequences kick in for agreeing to soil themselves in cesspools created by Rackauckas and Hutchens. Larson landed on the witness stand for the pretrial hearing and began games his Special Handling Unit pals played under oath with Goethals. When Scott asked if he had memorialized the activities of his informants in a Special Handling log at Theo Lacy like the one used at the county’s central jail and hidden for years, Larson professed uncertainty. When asked if he documented communications with informants anywhere, the deputy continued to evade, saying, “I don’t understand your question.”
(Anyone familiar with the scandal’s infancy would have felt like they were transported back to 2014 with Larson playing dumb nearly as well as OCSD’s legendary lying deputies: Seth Tunstall, Ben Garcia and Bill Grover.)
Larson, who was the main handler for snitch Jason Fenstermacher—a violent white-supremacist inmate working to aid deputies hoping to nail Govey—repeatedly insisted he’d never participated in unconstitutional jail scams. But the defense lawyer produced a Perry Mason moment. Scott read the deputy a line he’d written in a crime report about Fenstermacher’s informant work. He’d memorialized that the snitch was spying on other inmates “so he could give us information that might help cases.”
“I mistyped,” the deputy claimed. “I meant on his case.”
Scott reminded Larson he’d testified he didn’t help snitches with their own cases, only a prosecutor could.
“Like I told you before,” a terse Larson replied slowly, “it was probably mistyped.”
The laughable line was déjà vu. For example, Tunstall testified in 2014 and 2015 that he’d never cultivated or developed informants. Sanders crushed Tunstall’s credibility by producing a sworn affidavit the deputy wrote in an unrelated case. In it, this deputy—who has three post-graduate college degrees—specifically bragged about cultivating and develop snitches. Asked to explain the discrepancy, he sheepishly explained, “I guess I used the wrong words.”
(Like Larson, Tunstall has taken the Fifth when called by the defense in state cases but agreed to testify for federal prosecutors.)
Perhaps most worrisome is Marrett’s attempts to whitewash history. He claims Larson has no personal interest in Govey, though it was the deputy’s prized snitch, Fenstermacher, who worked feverishly but unsuccessfully to nail their target. In 2012, local prosecutors and deputies pushed felony gang membership-related charges against Govey knowing, as a secret recording shows, Fenstermacher told them PEN1 had placed him on a murder-on-sight list. Moreover, two years later, sheriff’s officials, including Larson and Beeman, cringed as their agency and the DA decided to dismiss Govey’s solicitation-of-murder case built on informant work rather than disclose court-ordered records that would have exposed the corrupt, hidden snitch program.
Then, according to this federal prosecutor, it was just a coincidence 11 deputies led by Larson went to Govey’s home near Disneyland, allegedly without knowing he lived there, conducted a guns-drawn raid and found the meth at the center of this latest case.
Carney is preparing a Jan. 30 trial launch.
R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.