In the aftermath of a superior court judge’s Aug. 4 announcement that Orange County law-enforcement officials faked memory loss and lied under oath in hopes of covering up a corrupt jailhouse-informant system, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens faced an obvious question: What the hell is going on in her department?
Evidentiary hearings conducted since March bolstered claims by Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders that deputies used informants to circumvent legal prohibitions against the government enticing incriminating statements from charged defendants who have counsel, and those same deputies helped hide exculpatory evidence about informants from defense lawyers.
Two days after Judge Thomas M. Goethals’ ruling, Hutchens weighed in with a reaction to Paul Anderson, a veteran City News Service reporter, by effectively saying, “Keep on moving; nothing to see here, folks.”
“When these allegations were initially made by [Sanders], I asked my folks to take a look to determine if our folks did anything improper in terms of placing an informant in an area [not allowed], and our initial look at this is that it did not occur,” the sheriff told Anderson.
So Hutchens quizzed her jail staff involved in running informant operations–the same ones Goethals branded liars–and they couldn’t think of “anything improper” they’d done.
Case closed, right?
Not so fast: There’s a lingering discrepancy. The sheriff’s story doesn’t square with statements made by deputy Ben Garcia, who–though the man at the center of many of the questionable informant moves–doesn’t recall anyone investigating Sanders’ claims.
Near the end of Goethals’ hearings, Sanders asked Garcia, “So, have you talked about the allegations at all with other members of the sheriff’s department?”
Garcia: “No, sir.”
The public defender followed up, asking the deputy if he had any memories of a meeting he had in March with prosecutors to discuss ways of responding to the allegations.
“I can’t recall,” said Garcia. “I can’t. I honestly can’t recall. . . . I’m sorry.”
That answer from a deputy who testified he couldn’t remember all the identities of the other deputies who worked in his four-deputy, special handling unit in 2012 and, though he was in charge of monitoring informants, has “never seen” a confidential informant file.
“I don’t know what a confidential file is,” the deputy testified.
Forced by Goethals, law enforcement had surrendered to Sanders a notebook detailing, in large part, Garcia’s work with Mexican Mafia informant Oscar Moriel. Inside the courtroom, the public defender held up the book, which deputies themselves titled, “Moriel C.I. Notebook,” and asked, “From your perspective, that wasn’t a C.I. file?”
“No, sir,” Garcia replied.
The deputy’s dunce performance didn’t end there. He also claims an inmate working as an informant–even for years–isn’t, in his mind, an informant until a police agency formally signs an informant contract with the individual, a stance that blatantly violates legal precedent and lamely attempts to explain why department officials allegedly failed to create records that might undermine the credibility of their snitches at trials.
On a separate, troubling front, Hutchens joined attempts by Garcia and another deputy, Seth Tunstall, to suggest a federal prosecutor ordered the informant program cheating.
Never mind that both Garcia and Tunstall suffered severe, suspicious memory losses that prevented them from consistently recalling details of the federal prosecutor’s alleged orders–orders Terri Flynn-Peister denied ever issuing–the sheriff told Anderson she thinks her staff could do a better job “documenting” informant demands made by the U.S. Department of Justice.
“I’ve asked them to look at how we document that type of incident when we get an outside agency using an informant in our jail,” Hutchens said. “I’ve asked my staff to make sure we’ve done everything we can [to address the allegations]. . . . I think we need a little bit more work, but I do feel, over the years, that we’ve tightened up the way we’ve dealt with those requests [to use informants]. But I feel quite confident that we’re going to do a thorough review.”
After all the lying, ugly revelations, inconsistent stories and scapegoating, such confidence the sheriff’s department is trustworthy can’t be shared absent actual reforms and severe punishment for those in her agency who felt free to be dishonest public servants.
An effort to resolve the discrepancy between Hutchens and Garcia failed with sheriff’s spokesman Jeff Hallock not fielding the pending question during the past four days.
Even if sheriff’s officials look the other way, questions will linger.
Deputies and prosecutors insist it was “a coincidence” that jailers placed their prized, veteran, two-faced Mexican Mafia informant, Fernando Perez, in a cell next to Seal Beach Salon massacre shooter Scott Dekraai in 2011, an explanation Sanders calls preposterous.
Confronted by the public defender earlier this year, prosecutors reluctantly admitted they’d violated Dekraai’s constitutional rights by using Perez to solicit statements about the crime, as well as about potential defense trial strategies.
Sanders’ work will also result in a new trial for Leonel Vega, who was convicted by the district attorney’s office, which failed to surrender key informant records to Vega’s defense.
The public defender says informant-system cheating tainted more than a dozen additional prosecutions.
UPDATE, 9:30 p.m.: Sheriff’s spokesman Hallock apologized for the delay in responding to my inquiry and provided an outline of department actions.
“At the direction of Sheriff Hutchens, our Custody Command Staff met with leadership from the investigations division and Special Handling Unit to discuss issues raised in [Sanders’] motion,” Hallock’s statement reads. “Following those discussions, protocol changes were implemented that included more detailed documentation of involvement with informants. Managers and supervisors of our Special Handling Unit subsequently briefed our Special Handling personnel, which included deputy Ben Garcia. Sheriff Hutchens was not present in the meeting but was briefed and concurred with the implemented changes.”
I appreciate the department providing more information and saying they will require better documentation of informant activities, but with all due respect to Hutchens–whom I have considered the best of the county’s past three sheriffs–the answer does not explain why deputy Garcia told Sanders in Goethals’ courtroom he never discussed the informant-cheating allegations with any of his colleagues.
That contradiction must be publicly settled because somebody in Hutchens’ department isn’t telling the truth.
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.