OCSD’s Secret Telephonic Data Mining System Expands Scope of Jail Scandal

Big Sister is Listening (Illustration by Richie Beckman)

Hints of Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ latest ugly scandal—the law-enforcement recording and studying of phone calls between defense attorneys and their pretrial, in-custody clients—surfaced without fanfare inside Fullerton courtroom N-11 in June 2016. That’s when Superior Court Judge Michael A. Leversen presided over the trial of Hugo Jovanny Jimenez. Prosecutors accused the 23-year-old Stanton resident of numerous felony charges, including attempted murders, stemming from a late-night, parking-lot brawl and shooting outside Lucky John’s, a bar and pool hall located next to a psychic’s shop on Beach Boulevard, just 10 minutes from Disneyland.

Witnesses at the scene could not identify Jimenez as the shooter. But that fact didn’t dissuade Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) deputies. Over the years, they’d stopped and questioned the reputed Crow Village gang member at least 26 times. Cops even placed him on a “TARGET” list of priority underworld suspects to routinely track, meticulously building records of his associations that a future prosecutor could exploit. After the Lucky John’s shooting, officers watched the bar’s grainy, low-pixel surveillance footage, which shows blurry faces in poor lighting conditions, and asserted they’d arrested the right man who seriously wounded three unarmed people.

But this is Orange County, where bad cops’ treachery often taints the work of good ones. Here, Sheriff Mike Carona involuntarily passed the Master of Disasters cap to Hutchens before he landed in federal prison. Once hyped as the squeaky-clean savior for OCSD, Hutchens has spent the past decade drifting from one scandal to the next. Her particular blend of ineptitude, deceit and more than a pinch of bureaucratic arrogance allows her to smile contemptuously when she assures the public all is well. On her watch, however, deputies operated an illegal jailhouse-informant program, hid exculpatory evidence and lied under oath during a cover-up.

Given that this sheriff pretends she’s scandal-free, it’s not surprising the stench of her messes traveled from OCSD’s Santa Ana headquarters to Jimenez’s Fullerton trial. Those familiar with the snitch controversy know of Seth Tunstall, a veteran Special Handling Unit deputy who managed informants directed to unconstitutionally obtain self-incriminating statements from government targets. To cover up his deeds, Tunstall repeatedly committed perjury, according to a superior court judge. District Attorney Tony Rackauckas refused to file charges, even though the official record is unambiguous about the deputy’s willingness to fib.

On June 6, 2016, Tunstall, still collecting a taxpayer-funded $234,000 annual pay package despite his troubles, entered Jimenez as a bailiff during a pretrial session. It was his lone appearance, one that was noteworthy given what transpired. Deputy District Attorney Patrick Moss rested his case two court days later. But the following day, Moss begged Leversen to reopen because the Special Handling Unit allegedly found powerful new pro-prosecution evidence: recorded jailhouse phone calls of the defendant plotting to craft an alibi. Adam Vining, Jimenez’s public defender, argued there’s a benign explanation. He said his innocent client was trying to create an alibi to avoid wrongful conviction.

While Jimenez’s move was certainly foolish, the development looks suspicious. When court resumed at 1:36 p.m. on June 15, 2016, Leversen granted Moss’ request to reopen and allowed Special Handling Unit deputy Brendan Pefley to tell his story. Though he barely knew of the defendant and rarely spoke to him, Pefley claimed that at about noon that day, he used Global Tel*Link Corporation’s phone system, purchased by OCSD, and accidentally discovered Jimenez’s voice on a recorded outgoing phone call assigned to another inmate. By mere coincidence, he came to work for his 6 a.m. shift and decided—without prompting—to look for Jimenez’s calls for the first time, the deputy testified under examination by the public defender.

Vining: So, it was random?

Deputy: Yes, sir.

Vining: There was no other reason other than chance you were monitoring his phone calls today?

Deputy: Yes, sir.

That testimony summons recollections of the snitch scandal, in which Tunstall—as well as others in the Special Handling Unit—asserted that jail informants were housed next to government targets merely by coincidence. Never mind that once-buried evidence proves OCSD officials staged elaborate cons to trick the general inmate population into believing the informants weren’t snitches. Not everyone was suckered. If California Court of Appeal decisions could laugh out loud, a historic 2016 ruling blasting OCSD subterfuge would have provided an audience soundtrack for a comedy show.

But there’s another important parallel. Tunstall claimed under oath there were no OCSD records that could explain the movement of snitches, even though we’d later learn there were at least three document systems performing that function on a daily basis: TREDs, “important information sharing only” entries that were cryptically named to thwart court orders for discovery, and the equally secret Special Handling Log.

During his court performance in Jimenez, Pefley was also less than forthcoming. In answering Vining’s questions, he portrayed OCSD’s monitoring of inmate calls as a herculean daily task that relied on mere luck to stumble upon a nugget of important information while screening conversations. He was careful to not mention the reality: Using Global Tel*Link Corporation’s system—specifically programs such as Data IQ and Nexidia™—deputies can easily plow through thousands of hours of calls.

“[OCSD] staff shall be able to index large amounts of recorded audio from phone calls, computer voicemail or radio communications—that shall be instantly searchable,” Orange County’s 2015 contract with the company states. “Nexidia™ shall search any spoken word, enabling the identification of relevant threats and trends. Phonetic search technology shall enable searches on proper names, inexact spellings, industry terms, jargons, slang and colloquialisms—all without extensive training, large dictionaries or vocabulary updates. Nexidia™ shall deliver highly accurate results regardless of the speakers’ gender, age, dialect and [accented] speaking style.”

Vining believes Tunstall accessed privileged conversations in the courtroom as a bailiff and shared them with Pefley, who began mining phone calls; he wants an evidentiary hearing and has been pushing for a new trial after the jury used the deputy’s work to convict. At a recent hearing, Leversen, who’d previously appeared resistant, acknowledged the news that Hutchens’ OCSD had illegally recorded at least 1,079 phone calls between inmates and their lawyers from January 2015 to July 2018. The judge said on Aug. 17 the development “causes me some concern” in the Jimenez matter. He set a Sept. 7 session for further discussions.

Meanwhile, in a separate court on Aug. 20, Judge Gregg L. Prickett heard a Rackauckas representative and Hutchens’ lawyer act offended that anyone might question their ethics in this latest scandal. Prickett said he wanted law-enforcement officials, who’ve already accessed at least 58 of the calls, to cease listening to the privileged communications. “I don’t want anything destroyed,” he said. The judge also began the process of naming one or more Special Masters, who’ll determine the extent of the abuse as well as the identities of the defendants and their attorneys.

The sheriff’s jail calls scandal emerged first in People v. Josh Waring, in which cops listened to dozens of privileged calls and clandestinely used that information in hopes of undermining the former Real Housewives of Orange County participant’s defense at the upcoming trial. Global Tel*Link executives are expected to fly in from Virginia on Aug. 23 to testify at a pretrial hearing. Ideally, the program is supposed to block deputies’ access to privileged calls. But it’s an honor system operating in a cesspool, with deputies being the ones who log which phone numbers they can’t monitor.

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; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.

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