U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-California) appeared on Rachel Maddow’s primetime Jan. 23 MSNBC show to sell her 2020 presidential campaign and, in the process, left those of us who watched her performance in one of Southern California’s biggest law-enforcement scandals astonished by her audacity.
Noting she might sound “corny,” Harris celebrated “courage,” urged people “to step up” and bemoaned attacks “not only on the American dream, but [also] American values” in the wake of the last presidential election.
“This is a moment that should require everyone to look in the mirror and ask: ‘What am I doing right now, and what can I do?’” she said. “This is to be a moment that has to be about what is each of us prepared to do?”
On the off-chance Harris’ makeover is semi-authentic, her time-travel trips to the aforementioned mirror in 2014, 2015 and 2016 would result in tearful self-loathing.
During those years, Orange County was in the midst of a massive criminal-justice-system scandal. Sheriff’s deputies had spent years running unconstitutional jailhouse scams against pretrial inmates to secretly secure prosecutorial victories at trials. In return, prosecutors under then-District Attorney Tony Rackauckas looked the other way when deputies hid, doctored or destroyed exculpatory evidence from defendants; repeatedly committed perjury; and disobeyed lawfully issued court orders. Tens of thousands of pages of records inside the Orange County Superior Court, as well as at the California Court of Appeal, prove beyond a reasonable doubt each element of what became known nationally as the jailhouse-informant scandal.
So, who polices the police if top-ranking local law-enforcement officials, including then-Sheriff Sandra Hutchens and Rackauckas, work in league to protect their government agencies from accountability when they’ve been caught cheating?
You might assume federal agents. But that didn’t happen. They were tainted themselves, having used many of the same corrupt Orange County deputies on their joint-agency task forces.
With Rackauckas and the U.S. Department of Justice compromised on the issue, there was only one person left to step up, demonstrate courage, and defend American values of honesty and fair play in courthouses: then-California Attorney General Harris, a San Francisco democrat who gained national attention when Barack Obama praised her physical attributes.
As this state’s top law officer, Harris possessed not only the prosecutorial power to fight law-enforcement corruption, but also the moral obligation to protect our county—which, by the way, is larger than 20 U.S. states—from badged crooks, many of whom take home taxpayer-funded annual pay packages of around $300,000 or more, according to Transparent California records.
Instead, Harris sent an unmistakable signal: Under her watch, police-agency employees in California were free to commit perjury—even in death-penalty cases, as they did in Orange County (see People v. Daniel Wozniak, People v. Lynn Dean Johnson, People v. Wendell Lemond and People v. Scott Dekraai).
Harris can’t claim ignorance of what transpired in our informant scandal. Beginning in early 2014, she placed Deputy Attorney General Theodore Cropley inside Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals’ Santa Ana courtroom for months as alarming details of the scandal unfolded. But Cropley telegraphed his stance from the outset. Day after day, he chuckled, smiled and huddled with Dan Wagner, a choir-boy faced Orange County prosecutor with a sinister streak who directed efforts to whitewash damning evidence against himself, the dirty deputies and his office.
In August 2014, Goethals declared that multiple sheriff’s deputies had committed perjury under oath on the witness stand. Harris did nothing. Seven months later, after more bombshell evidence emerged that expanded the scope and intensity of the deputies’ cheating, Goethals—a former homicide prosecutor—wrote another ruling expressing exasperation over the corruption.
Harris finally acted. She announced the opening of an investigation into the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD). As months, then years passed, it became increasingly clear the probe was nothing more than a sham. Though efforts were made to conceal that fact from the public, illuminating details emerged. For example, Harris’ investigators incredibly obeyed OCSD commands not to audio record certain statements from accused deputies.
More telling, however, is the fact that the alleged investigation long ago landed in bureaucratic oblivion. Though Goethals and the California Court of Appeal officially announced disgust with OCSD perjury years ago, the AG’s office—first under Harris and now with Xavier Becerra—hasn’t held anyone accountable after a probe that so far has lasted more than 1,411 days.
(It took NASA’s New Horizons rocket less than 390 days to travel about 400 million miles from Earth to Jupiter.)
“The former Attorney General’s efforts in Orange County were far from a profile in courage,” Scott Sanders, the assistant public defender who exposed the informant scandal, told OC Weekly today. “Her unwillingness to stand up to dishonest law enforcement will be her lasting legacy here, and the criminal-justice system will continue to pay the price for years.”
The ethical failures weren’t limited to OC. In January 2015, a federal appellate panel asked Kevin Vienna, a Harris staffer, why their office hadn’t filed criminal charges against Riverside County prosecutors who provided false testimony under oath to win a murder trial in People v. Johnny Baca. Vienna bumbled, clearly indicating the idea had never entered his head. As a result, the panel slammed Harris’ “total silence” on the corruption.
During her recent MSNBC interview, Maddow didn’t ask Harris about either scandal, even after the presidential candidate firmly declared that law-enforcement officials who cheat must face “consequences and accountability.”
She added, “Our strength is that we speak truth.”
Maddow ended the segment stating that because of Harris’ “record,” she “has a very good chance to win” the Democratic Party’s nomination for president next year.
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; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.