If a powerful state government official saw flagrant law-enforcement corruption, remained silent and did nothing for years, what would you think if that person ran for the presidency of the United States with a campaign slogan of “Speaking Truth, Demanding Justice”?
What if that same White House candidate labeled herself “a fearless advocate” and a “determined fighter”?
And what if, in a sly attempt to mold her character weakness into a strength for unwitting voters, this onetime state attorney general also pledged “to fix our broken criminal-justice system” if she becomes leader of the free world?
That’s not a fictional, warped character. That’s real-life Kamala Harris, California’s junior U.S. senator who formally announced her presidential aims last month. Pundits quickly crowned Harris a frontrunner in an ever-expanding field of Democrats seeking that party’s 2020 nomination.
But trying to switch an ugly past with a glossy, blemish-free reincarnation isn’t necessarily easy in a national campaign if—and this is a big if—political reporters at large, mainstream news outlets study Harris’ past and grill her on it. Her most recent hurdle came from The New York Times, which published a lengthy profile (“‘Progressive Prosecutor’: Can Kamala Harris Square the Circle?”) on Feb. 11.
In that story, Harris admitted that as California Attorney General, she’d been briefed on systemic law-enforcement cheating in what is nationally known as the Orange County jailhouse-informant scandal. With a wink-wink from local prosecutors, deputies inside the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) ran unconstitutional scams against pretrial inmates, hid or destroyed exculpatory evidence, and repeatedly committed perjury to cover up their messes. Crime victims and their families were outraged that those tainted deputies’ habit of trampling the constitution botched trials.
In just a few years, the scandal upended at least 20 major felony cases, including those involving murders. The California Court of Appeal railed against the law-enforcement corruption in a historic November 2016 ruling, when a shoulder-shrugging Harris was still AG. The justices called the threat to the criminal-justice system “grave” and blasted officials for tolerating lousy ethics.
The situation wasn’t a mystery to Harris. “I knew misconduct had occurred,” she told Kate Zernike, a reporter at the Times. “Clearly it had.”
But none of the badged cheaters were held accountable. Then-Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and then-District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, whose office used the OCSD scams to win trials, pretended no misconduct had occurred. When it came time for Harris to act, she also did nothing.
Well, that’s not entirely accurate. She announced the launch of an investigation in early 2015 and pretended she was a watchdog the public could trust. That alleged probe, which is now four years old, withered in bureaucratic la-la land while offending deputies and prosecutors felt relief as statutes of limitations expired.
Zernike quoted Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of UC Irvine’s law school during the height of the scandal, as calling Harris’ inaction “outrageous.” He also relayed an important tidbit.
“Twice, Kamala Harris called on my cell and said she was on top of [the cheating] and was looking into it,” Chemerinsky told the Times. “To my knowledge, the California AG never did anything with regard to the scandal.”
As I’ve reported for three years, the probe was a sham from the outset. We now have unassailable proof from a most unlikely source: Harris, who possessed the authority to arrest any lawbreaker in the state. She explained to Zernike that she philosophically believes an AG should ignore dirty law-enforcement officials, a notion she wisely kept secret during prior campaigns.
Imagine you’ve been wrongly arrested or convicted by scoundrels, and the state’s top prosecutor is uninterested in your nightmare. Imagine the signal that AG sends to crooked cops. Imagine being told the best you, as such a victim, can hope for is a future election that might topple a tainted agency’s boss.
Harris is at peace with that notion of justice.
Protecting the criminal-justice system from abuses by government officials was “up to the voters,” Harris told the Times, “not the attorney general.”
Will the presidential-primary electorate buy lame dodging of responsibility?
CNN-featured investigative reporter 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; earned six dozen other reporting awards; and been hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.