Attorney General Xavier Becerra called a late-April press conference in Los Angeles to celebrate a $150 million settlement with a Wall Street giant that allegedly abused state public employees on high-risk pension investments. After claiming he holds lawbreakers “accountable,” Becerra stated, “The California Department of Justice is watching.” The former congressional Democrat ended by emphasizing his message. “No one,” he said, “is above the law.”
Those who are unfamiliar with the AG’s historic protection of dirty cops might be excused for swallowing his lines, but that gullibility didn’t extend to James Queally, a Los Angeles Times crime-beat reporter. Nearly a week earlier, OC Weekly broke the news that underscores the emptiness of Becerra’s rhetoric. Without fanfare in a Fullerton courtroom, Deputy AG Darren Shaffer admitted his agency had quietly ended its investigation into what has become known nationally as the Orange County jailhouse-informant scandal.
There’s no mystery as to what happened. In violation of long-established U.S. Supreme Court mandates, sheriff’s deputies recruited snitches to befriend pretrial inmates, then either unethically tricked the government targets into confessing or lied about obtaining such information for jury consumption. The deputies also repeatedly committed perjury, disobeyed lawfully issued court orders, hid or destroyed evidence, and released deceitful press statements to conceal the illegal program.
On several occasions, Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals, the recipient of the perjured testimony, blasted the lies as blatant. An exasperated California Court of Appeal expressed disgust by the systemic corruption inside the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) as well as the willingness of the district attorney’s office under Tony Rackauckas to protect the dirty deputies. In fact, the appellate justices, none of whom anyone would consider lefties, labeled the situation “grave.”
Pretending she’d hold OCSD villains accountable, then-AG Kamala Harris—a current U.S. senator running for president—announced the launch of an investigation in March 2015. After Harris left the following year without results or real effort, Becerra continued her charade, as we’ve previously detailed. The recent admission that the probe had ended without a single arrest or even a report isn’t surprising. It was the end of a sham, one that Harris this year admitted wouldn’t have resulted in the arrest of cops regardless of the evidence against them.
Politicians often bring crime victims to events as demonstrations of their compassion and tough-on-lawbreaker bona-fides. But during the AG’s presser on the investment settlement, his staff blocked the entrance of Paul Wilson, who has become the ubiquitous face of victims’ rights campaigns. Wilson lost his wife Christy in the worst mass shooting in Orange County history, the 2011 Seal Beach salon murders. When the massacre occurred, Wilson believed in the righteousness of the criminal-justice system. He assumed all cops told the truth and never cheated—and if they did, they’d face punishment.
Wilson reluctantly discovered his naivete. Hearing OCSD perjury month after month, he realized—like the rest of us—the deputies believed they could cheat in his wife’s case to secure the death penalty against the shooter because nobody would ever know. Trampling the constitutional rights of pretrial inmates wasn’t an aberration. It was routine corruption that became the foundation of the snitch scandal, which prolonged People v. Scott Dekraai and the suffering of the victims’ families by nearly four years.
An incredulous Wilson often asks, “Who cheats in a slam-dunk death-penalty case?”
But he just hasn’t been asking questions. He has also been demanding answers. That’s why, as did Rackauckas before him, Becerra banned Wilson from his events. In prior encounters, he hasn’t caused any scenes. But politicians get disturbed that he stands quietly and shakes his head when he hears them lie.
If you don’t think it’s easy to unnerve these folks, consider the December 2017 immaturity of James Laird, a senior deputy DA who’d just assisted a serial killer in winning his eventual freedom because of snitch work. I’d been critical of the deal. In the aftermath, Laird held a press conference, saw someone react to his explanation by shaking his head and stormed into the crowd thinking he was going to get in my face. But it was Wilson—not me—so Laird had to quickly retreat. A prosecutor on the verge of punching a murder-case victim isn’t good publicity.
There’s no doubt that with Wilson locked out of his LA press conference, Becerra—who has been fighting to keep evidence of cops’ moral turpitude secret throughout the state—thought he could celebrate himself. But the aforementioned Times reporter Queally served as the party pooper by mentioning the failed snitch probe. He asked the AG, “You don’t think you’ve got to give the public a little bit of an explanation here?”
Ponder the remarkable political speak Becerra uttered in response, as captured by Lisa Bartley’s KABC-TV camera crew: “Accountability is something where, it has to be done in a way that guarantees not just the subjects of any investigation justice in the process, but that we’ll give the public a sense of confidence in the way it’s done.”
With Becerra and his DOJ useless, the spotlight turns to Todd Spitzer, OC’s freshman district attorney who campaigned heavily on snitch-scandal outrages to defeat Rackauckas, the 20-year incumbent. A DA must “pursue justice” and not cheat “using illegal informants,” Spitzer’s campaign literature declared. He also derided law-enforcement “malfeasance.”
After entering the county government’s most powerful office in January, Spitzer turned more tepid and declared the snitch-scandal era over. We can trust him to prevent future prosecution-team cheating, he insists. But he’s either left Rackauckas’ scandal-tainted prosecutors in prominent jobs or promoted them.
Wilson, whom Spitzer used as a campaign prop, is disheartened by the moves.
“Rackauckas let us down,” he said. “Becerra let us down. Todd has let us down. We’re not getting justice. There has to be accountability.”
Our new DA faces a fast-approaching deadline to redeem himself as the anti-Rackauckas.
The statute of limitations to file charges against OCSD deputies who ran the slimy informant operations and committed already judicially recognized perjury may end within weeks of the publication of this column.
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.