Sheriff Clicks Her Heels But OC Snitch Scandal Won’t Go Away

Anyone who had spent a year traveling overseas before walking into the July 24 Board of Supervisors’ meeting on civilian oversight woes at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) might have thought they were witnessing the coronation of Sheriff Sandra Hutchens. The top cop’s arrival in the Hall of Administration, with her entourage, prompted smiles, handshakes and backslaps. One attendee said the sheriff was doing an “excellent” job. Another praised her willingness to attend; a third declared “the highest degree of respect for her.” Even board chairman Todd Spitzer praised Hutchens’ purported desire “to do the right thing.”

If OCSD is a paradigm of virtuous public service, why call a semi-emergency hearing? The sheriff wondered the gist of this question out loud, though she said, in disingenuous politeness, “I’m pleased to be here.” Worried police-corruption revelations once again have won national attention, Spitzer assembled the powwow to discuss strengthening the Office of Independent Review (OIR) or scrapping it for more effective oversight. “We have a problem as a county,” he said.

Hutchens–whose predecessor, Mike Carona, landed in federal prison–posed flummoxed because the current system “is not broken.” She says she enjoys an “excellent working relationship” with OIR, whose aim is to never “embarrass us” publicly. “There is no crisis or scandal in the Orange County Sheriff’s Department,” a defiant sheriff said. “But here we are.”

Hutchens has shut her eyes tightly, clicked the heels of her ruby slippers and dreamed she’s back in 2013. That’s when we didn’t know that for a quarter of a century, OCSD hid exculpatory evidence contained in a system called TRED. The concealed records aren’t merely bureaucratic gibberish on inmates’ housing movements; they are a gateway to understanding a scandal. Year after year, prosecution teams entered courthouses, swore jailhouse informants accidentally overheard confessions, put those lying snitches in front of juries and won convictions. But as the TRED records show in hundreds, if not thousands, of cases, officials left nothing to chance. Deputies ran unethical scams to capture self-incriminating statements from government targets.

Denying the underhandedness is childish. In March, the cheating caused Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals, an ex-prosecutor, to recuse Tony Rackauckas’ Orange County district attorney’s office (OCDA) from People v. Scott Dekraai, a death-penalty case. OCDA has been forced to concede exculpatory evidence never made it to defense lawyers and that the agency secured alleged confessions in violation of constitutional protections. Convictions have been overturned, new trials ordered and–to keep additional embarrassing evidence away from public consumption–a murderer set free. Hoping to forestall a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) probe, Rackauckas handpicked an “independent, external” review panel, but he contractually controls its media statements. Two veteran OCSD deputies handling snitches–Ben Garcia and Seth Tunstall–got labeled as liars; fearing perjury charges, Tunstall recently refused to testify in felony cases.

At the supervisors’ meeting, Hutchens carped about alleged media assumptions of OCSD wrongdoing. The sheriff also blasted California Attorney General Kamala Harris, a 2016 U.S. Senate candidate, for issuing a July 13 brief in Dekraai that essentially (and laughably) absolved Rackauckas’ staff while blaming the scandal solely on “systemic problems” inside OCSD. The sheriff said she isn’t “confident” the AG can be trusted to conduct a thorough investigation of the informant issues because the brief made conclusions without first questioning her. “Political ‘gotcha’ moments don’t make a public agency better,” Hutchens whined.

Questioning the sheriff is a waste of time. She’s living in denial. Keen, critical observations by Goethals and the AG’s office weren’t plucked from thin air. During more than 100 hours of testimony, reasonable observers saw deputies (and their prosecutorial allies) scrambling to cover up the scandal as innocent errors that unintentionally worked against defendants 100 percent of the time.

Last year, Hutchens tried to blame Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, who broke the scandal, for supposedly manufacturing the agency’s PR problem. The sheriff told City News Service in August her inquiry discredited his allegations. But the findings were 700 Club-style miracles. According to testimony by Tunstall and Garcia six months later, there had been no internal investigation. Still, at Spitzer’s hearing, the sheriff proclaimed she’s committed to “accountability” and “transparency” and recoiled at the notion OIR, which shares office space with deputies, is a toothless watchdog. “I find that statement offensive in its implications,” she said.

Let’s ponder what is truly offensive. In May 2014 and again last February, Tunstall and Garcia pretended under oath that TRED records they’d authored thousands of times didn’t exist and insisted they couldn’t produce informant records because the agency didn’t have snitches. In August 2014, with the aid of deputy county counsel Liz Pejeau, OCSD Sergeant Brent Benson, one of Hutchens’ supervisors, echoed his colleagues’ deceit. Benson stated “under penalty of perjury” he could not comply with Sanders’ subpoena for snitch records tied to the Dekraai case “because there is no jail informant program.”

Yet in a December interview with the Orange County Register, Hutchens attempted a bold, two-pronged maneuver. The sheriff championed her snitch operations, stating, “The use of jailhouse informants has proven to be very effective.” She also explained the false testimony was because of court inexperience–an odd claim given Tunstall, for example, has landed on the witness stand at least 66 times.

Tunstall’s utterances are a case study in the willingness of badged individuals to fabricate reality. The deputy said in May 2014 that he never developed informants, an answer Sanders believes was an excuse to evade questions. Months later, the defense lawyer found the deputy’s sworn affidavit in an unrelated case. To win search-warrant approval, Tunstall described his expertise: “During my employment with the sheriff’s department, I have cultivated, interviewed and supervised numerous confidential informants.”

Over the objections of prosecutor Howard Gundy at a Feb. 9 hearing, Sanders confronted the deputy. Teflon Tunstall still refused to acknowledge the informant program. Though he earned a doctorate in clinical psychology, the deputy claimed he’d inadvertently used three erroneous words in the sentence–“cultivated,” “supervised” and “numerous.” “I guess I put the wrong [words] in there,” he explained to Goethals, who declared the officer a liar weeks after such assertions.

Presumed to know what’s happening in her agency, Hutchens nonetheless made this alarming statement: “I have not seen anything that would lead me to believe any of the deputies were deliberately trying to mislead anyone.”

Back at Spitzer’s oversight hearing, Kimberly Edds, spokeswoman for the deputies’ union, defended the status quo. “Orange County is in an enviable position,” said Edds, an ex-Register reporter. “There is no pressing crisis needing immediate action.”

Police-oversight consultant Michael Gennaco–a panelist suggested by Hutchens–advised “to continue doing what’s being done.”

Merrick Bob, another consultant, proposed an inspector general-type model where the “relationship is not adversarial with [OCSD].”

Meanwhile, Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Irvine School of Law, called for a five-member commission (three appointed by the board; one each by the sheriff and DA). Chemerinsky says members should possess subpoena power and protected, five-year terms so they are “truly a watchdog for the public.” The dean also backs strengthened whistleblower protections for brave deputies willing to expose OCSD corruption.

No supervisor committed to a reform model. The board is scheduled to revisit the topic on Tuesday. Spitzer says the key is to “instill more confidence in law enforcement.” A first step? Honest leadership.

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