Monthly Archives: June 2018

Orange County Sheriff Ordered To Testify In Hearings Over Jailhouse Snitch Scandal

SANTA ANA, Calif. ? An Orange County judge who ordered hearings related to the misuse of jailhouse informants inside county jails said that after weeks of inconsistent testimony from sheriff?s officials, he now wants to hear from the sheriff herself.

Superior Court Judge Thomas Goethals said Thursday that he will order Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens to testify about a sophisticated and secretive jailhouse informant program that has already led to the unraveling of more than a dozen cases and threatens to upend countless others.

?Based on what we?ve heard, the sheriff needs to testify,? Goethals said Thursday. ?I don?t particularly care who calls her to testify.?

Over the last three weeks of hearings, a steady theme has emerged from testimony delivered by sheriff?s department leadership ? if deputies inside county jails were illegally working with informants and violated the rights of numerous defendants, it was just a handful of overzealous, rogue deputies doing so, and they did it behind the backs of their managers, who knew nothing of those improprieties at the time they took place.

But, this week, troubling questions were raised about the credibility of the supervisors? version of events. And those questions were punctuated by testimony from a sole sheriff?s deputy who said that his fellow deputies in the jail did work with informants, but did so under the supervision, and approval, of those above them in the chain of command.

The hearings were ordered as part of the penalty phase of the case against Scott Dekraai, who pleaded guilty to murdering eight people in 2011. Dekraai?s sentencing has remained in limbo amid allegations of malfeasance by county prosecutors and sheriff?s deputies over their misuse of an informant that officials allegedly illegally planted in jail next to Dekraai.

OCSD leadership shifts blame to allegedly rogue deputies

A commander and multiple sheriff?s lieutenants and sergeants have all testified that they did not know that their deputies were working extensively with informants in county jails. They also said they didn?t know that much of that work may have been illegal.

The sheriff?s department?s denial of the jail informant program is nothing new. Hutchens has said consistently that her deputies do not develop informants and direct them to elicit statements from other inmates.

But Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, Dekraai?s attorney, has for years alleged that a long-concealed, illegal snitch program has been operating inside county jails, perhaps for decades. Under the program, he alleges, deputies placed informants next to targeted inmates and directed them to fish for incriminating evidence to help prosecutors secure convictions.

Last year, an 1,157-page formerly secret document, known as the Special Handling log, became public and bolstered Sanders? allegations significantly. Maintained by OCSD jail deputies for years, the thousands of log entries shed new light on the scope of the misconduct surrounding the jail informant program. Goethals has said the evidence that has already surfaced points to a snitch program in the jail, and his findings were affirmed in a 2016 California appeals court ruling.

?The magnitude of the systemic problems cannot be overlooked,? the appeals court ruling said.

However, in surprising testimony this week that the judge called ?the biggest piece of evidence? yet, Cmdr. Jon Briggs became the first command-level staffer to contradict Hutchens. Briggs said he believes it?s ?obvious? that a tainted informant program was being used by some deputies inside county jails and that significant misconduct had been going on, possibly for years.

Deputies were trying to ?one-up each other, like it is a fraternity and they are trying to do better than the other guy,? he said.

Briggs also said poor management from sergeants and lieutenants was largely to blame for the rampant misconduct described in the log ? a point other officers also made under oath.

?We had constant turnover of supervisors. Constant turnover of lieutenants,? Briggs said. ?The deputies were kind of ? if you want to refer to it as ? the inmates were running the asylum on that occasion,? Briggs said. ?With all the accolades being given to the deputy sheriffs ? they were senior deputies, trusted deputies ? by all accounts everybody thought they were doing a great job, so nobody looked into it.?

Briggs also said one deputy, Seth Tunstall, poisoned the behavior of other Special Handling deputies in the two jails in the county where informants are housed.

Tunstall has become a central figure in the Dekraai proceedings. In his 2015 opinion removing the entire Orange County District Attorney?s office from the case, Goethals singled out Tunstall and a fellow deputy for misleading the court. Tunstall worked in a unit that dealt with inmates and informants inside county jails before it was recently disbanded. He was also assigned to a gang task force with the Santa Ana Police Department, where Briggs believes Tunstall encouraged deputies to engage in the improper conduct with informants in the jails that is described in the log.

?You believe Seth Tunstall was changing the way Special Handling at both jails was doing business?? Sanders asked Briggs.

?Yes, sir,? he responded.

Cracks emerge in the sheriff?s department?s version of events

Yet just moments after Briggs pegged Tunstall as the source of the misconduct of other deputies in the jail, he appeared to back down after Sanders confronted him with an internal department memo celebrating the ?intelligence gathering? skills of the Special Handling unit at one county jail.

The memo states that the jail unit ?possesses an excellent expertise in the cultivation and management of informants? ? expertise ?recognized by the Orange County District Attorney?s Office as well as numerous law enforcement agencies throughout Southern California.? The memo, dated March 2007 and sent from an OCSD sergeant up the chain of command to a captain, was written during a period before Tunstall was working in the jails.

After showing Briggs the memo, Sanders asked: ?Do you think, looking at that, maybe your thesis about Seth Tunstall being the motivating factor could have been wrong??

?I guess it could have been, yes,? Briggs replied.

Sanders also showed Briggs a 2009 internal OCSD memo sent to command staff that requested permission, which was granted the same day, to place an informant next to an inmate charged with murder and then record the conversation. According to the testimony of OCSD officials, however, command-level staff weren?t aware of informant operations in the jail.

?Sergeants and lieutenants are actively deceiving this court? in their effort to claim ignorance about the informant operation within the jail, Sanders later told Goethals.

California Deputy Attorney General Mike Murphy, the lead prosecutor, disagreed, saying the evidence thus far did not indicate a ?greater cover-up.? 

On Thursday, additional inconsistencies emerged through the testimony of sheriff?s deputy Zachary Bieker.

Bieker said he and his fellow deputies worked with informants in the jail and documented that work in the Special Handling log. That contradicted a steady stream of sergeants and lieutenants who claimed to be unaware of the log, even though their deputies made daily entries in it. Bieker testified that the log was re-started in 2011 at the direction of a supervisor, and that he had discussions with supervisors about it.

According to Bieker, the work of a Special Handling deputy included not only making decisions about housing movements and maintaining jail safety, but working with informants. He said his efforts were fully known by his supervisors in the jail. Beiker added he was comfortable speaking with supervisors about what he described in the log.

Asked about the sophisticated jail informant operations Bieker said deputies were at times involved in, Bieker said: ?I don?t think it would be possible to hide it from a supervisor.?

Dekraai victim?s husband speaks out, wants OCSD officials held ?accountable? for misconduct 

Despite the misconduct that has already tainted the Dekraai case, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced in March that his office would continue to pursue the death penalty against Dekraai.

On Monday, Paul Wilson, whose wife Christy was one of the eight people killed by Dekraai at a Seal Beach hair salon in 2011, told Goethals that he would ?absolutely? prefer that Goethals drop the death penalty and instead sentence Dekraai to eight consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole ? an option Goethals has said he?s considering.

It?s a ?huge wound this continues to open by coming to court,? Wilson said on what would have been Christy?s 53rd birthday. ?I can?t tell you what this does to me.?

?The testimony we?ve heard in here, from people who knew exactly what they were doing, is pathetic.?

Hearings will resume next week.

Catch up on what happened during the hearings in week one, All The New Questions We Have About The Orange County Jail Informant Scandal, and week two, Key Witnesses In A California Jailhouse Snitch Scandal Refuse to Testify.

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While You Were Paying Attention To Comey, House Republicans Voted For Everything Big Banks Want

WASHINGTON ? While much of the political world was watching the fallout from former FBI Director James Comey?s Senate testimony Thursday, House Republicans were jamming through a bill that would largely gut the financial regulations in Dodd-Frank, the landmark banking legislation passed in 2010 after the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

But instead of quietly sneaking the legislation through, Republicans were loudly touting the bill ? which passed, 233-186, with all Democrats and one Republican (Walter Jones of North Carolina) voting no ? as a major victory.

Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) spent most of the week pointing to the measure as a win for community banks, calling the so-called Financial CHOICE Act the ?crown jewel? of a GOP effort to peel back regulations and bolster the economy. And Republicans, largely looking for something to discuss instead of Comey or Trump or any number of the other associated scandals, used the legislation as their preferred talking point of the week.

?The big banks are bigger. The small banks are fewer. We?re losing a community bank or credit union a day,? Financial Services Committee Chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), the sponsor of the bill, said Thursday.

When HuffPost asked House Republicans about the bill Wednesday and Thursday ? whether easing Wall Street regulations was really the message of the 2016 election ? GOP lawmakers quickly reframed the measure as a win for community banking.

?We?re getting rid of ?too big to fail,? and we?re saving the little banks,? Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) said. ?There was over 14,000 community banks. We?re losing one a day; we?re under 7,000.?

Ways and Means Chairman Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said the legislation would lift regulations off local banks so they could more freely lend to their communities and small business. He said that small banks had been ?getting killed? by the regulations in the Dodd-Frank Act.

Freshman Rep. James Comer, who was a director of a community bank before coming to Congress, said he saw firsthand the impact of Dodd-Frank on small banks.

?With the community banks, they paid the price for the sins of the big banks,? Comer (R-Ky.) said. ?And in small towns, it?s become much harder to borrow money.?

But Democrats were quick to point out that if Republicans simply wanted to help small banks, they could have crafted a bill that did so without gutting other consumer protections meant to protect the market from risky bets.

?This is about going backwards,? Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) told HuffPost. ?Republicans were never very enthusiastic about holding Wall Street to account or protecting consumers, and this shows it.?

?It moves us back to an era before the 2008 meltdown when there was no one watching Wall Street,? Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) said of the bill.

?If the Republicans were interested in some productive changes around community banking, there?s many Democrats who?ve been at the table on that as well,? Polis continued, ?but this bill would remove the critical consumer protections that were put in place from Dodd-Frank.?

Republicans were never very enthusiastic about holding Wall Street to account or protecting consumers, and this shows it.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.)

Specifically, the bill would subject the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to the appropriations process, meaning lawmakers could substantially cut, or even defund, the consumer watchdog. Democrats say subjecting the CFPB to congressional appropriations is the first step in eviscerating the agency.

The CHOICE Act would also cut the so-called Volcker Rule, which was meant to stop big banks from making speculative bets with taxpayer-backed funds. (Simple in premise, the Volcker Rule is in fact incredibly complex and contains multiple exemptions too large and purposeful to be called loopholes.) The bill would also remove regulators? increased power over ?systemically important financial institutions.? (Colloquially, these are the ?too big to fail? institutions.)  

Republicans have cannily described that ?too big to fail? designation as meaning the institutions are earmarked for bailouts. In fact, it subjects the institutions to greater regulation and forces them to produce plans showing they can fail without government intervention, and big finance companies fight ? and sometimes sue ? to avoid the tougher regulation the designation brings.

The legislation also would prohibit the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. from overseeing plans on how banks with more than $50 billion in holding assets would be unwound should they need to go into bankruptcy. And the bill would substantially lower capital requirements.

For years, as an alternative to Dodd-Frank, some Republicans have proposed increasing capital requirements as a simple way to make banks safer. Bankers and their lobbyists would often offer general agreement to such a trade. But given the chance to write such a bill, the banking industry and Republican lawmakers showed their hand: Higher capital requirements are out, and a banking system loaded up with more debt is in.

Dodd-Frank, like the complex and interrelated financial system it regulates, does not have a simple, identifiable core. There is no one main thing Dodd-Frank does or stops. Instead, Dodd-Frank reins in the hugely diverse, interconnected financial world ? banks, hedge funds, mortgage originators, insurance companies, debt collectors, payday lenders ? by creating dozens and dozens of new rules, processes and organizations. The CHOICE Act rips almost every bit of this away. If Dodd-Frank is the ecosystem of a wooded hillside and gentle stream, the CHOICE Act is mountaintop removal mining.

From the very inception of Dodd-Frank, the political right has seized on the law as onerous and harmful to economic growth. Gutting the law would be a substantial ?win? for Republicans in their minds, particularly when they can paint their actions as helping small banks.

But the bill undeniably allows riskier bets from banks and restrains the ability of regulators to monitor Wall Street. The legislation certainly would make it easier on small-town banks to lend more of their money, but the measure is wrapped in so many other sops to the financial industry that it?s unlikely to go anywhere in the Senate, where it?s subject to 60 votes to pass. Even the Trump administration gave a less than full-throated endorsements of the legislation in a statement, saying the administration ?looks forward to working with the Senate on arriving at a final piece of legislation.?

Still, the prospect of passing a bill ? any bill ? that Republicans like and Democrats hate was enough to thrill GOP lawmakers. Amid all the news about Russia and Comey on Thursday, Republicans set up a ?media row? in one of the House office buildings so members could play up their action on Dodd-Frank and try to muddle headlines about the president potentially obstructing justice. And as absurd as that plan may sound, it, in part, seemed to work.

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