Normally, the convicted sex offender’s request for clemency would have been met with a quick and emphatic “no” from the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office.
But these are not normal times in the district attorney’s office.
So when the criminal earlier this year asked a judge to reconsider his 73-year sentence, the prosecutor handling the case did not object. He couldn’t, he explained in a court filing, because his boss, Dist. Atti. George Gascón, would not allow it, according to court records.
“The district attorney believes that regardless of the number of charges committed or the number of victims who were injured, a person should not serve a sentence longer than 15 years,” he wrote.
This stance earned the district attorney’s supervisor a reprimand from one of Gascón’s top aides, who told him the attorney had misrepresented one of the many dramatic changes the district attorney implemented on first day of his term, according to court records. And when the supervisor was demoted to a lowly position at a remote Torrance courthouse, she sued, claiming she had been retaliated against.
The debacle was an example of how deep discord over Gascón and his changes complicated day-to-day operations within the nation’s largest prosecutor’s office, at times turning what should be mundane, routine business into messy business.
The office has been troubled by a Gascón recall campaign that is strongly supported by most of those who work there, lawsuits from employees who claim they were punished for opposing his policies, and a level of mistrust that has people on both sides of the dispute watch what they say and who they say it to.
In interviews, more than a dozen prosecutors and defense attorneys — a mix of Gascón allies, die-hard recall supporters, and those trying to navigate the office punches without getting touch — agreed that the bad blood pitting Gascón and his entourage against the hundreds of prosecutors they command is a distraction at best and a serious disruption at worst for an office that files more than 100,000 cases each year. Many lawyers interviewed requested anonymity to candidly discuss the inner workings of the office because they feared retaliation or disciplinary action.
On his first day in office, Gascón barred prosecutors from seeking the death penalty, trying minors as adults, or seeking sentencing enhancements that would increase the length of the sentence faced by defendants across a broad spectrum. cases, including those involving the use of a gun or a gang. activity.
Gascón’s decision to announce the changes without first discussing them with the prosecutors who would be responsible for implementing them was, according to some critics, his “original sin”. This decision reinforced their view of Gascón as an idealist with a limited understanding of how to run the office on a practical basis. (A judge ruled some of Gascón’s policies were illegal, and the district attorney backtracked on some of the all-or-nothing changes.)
Those close to Gascón say that due to widespread backlash to his policies, the district attorney and those around him are wary of even speaking to some employees.
“It had an impact on communication, because I think the decision-makers in the office are asking, who do you trust?” said a senior official. “I have to be careful who I talk to, what I talk about. We have support staff here supporting the recall. We have [prosecutors] on this floor that support the recall.
Mistrust goes both ways. Assistant Dist. Atti. Richard Ceballos, a hate crimes prosecutor who once supported Gascón but has since become critical of him, said prosecutors intentionally withhold information about the case from their bosses to avoid interference from Gascón and its management team.
“He doesn’t know what’s going on. The people he surrounds himself with don’t really know what’s going on in the day-to-day operations of the office, and that’s partly because we don’t tell them anything,” Ceballos said. “They’re on a need-to-know basis.”
In the past, Gascón has expressed concern that prosecutors were hiding critical information from him, including the existence of damning prison tapes in a controversial case. But in a recent interview, he downplayed the level of dissatisfaction, saying prosecutors no longer openly defy his orders, as some did early in his tenure.
“Not only are we seeing more compliance, but increasingly, some of the bad behavior — really, in some cases, I would say, insubordinate behavior — you don’t see that,” he said. “There is a core of people who express their political views very openly, which is good. Sometimes you wonder whether or not they’re crossing a legal line on company time… but we’re in a much better place than a year and a half ago.
These political views, however, have seeped into at least one courtroom. Last week, a defense attorney filed a formal complaint with Deputy Chief Dist. Atti. Sharon Woo, claiming a prosecutor asked the lawyer to sign a dismissal petition as they discussed a case in court, according to an email obtained by The Times.
The lawyer expressed concern that if the prosecutor “did this so cavalierly with me, a lawyer with whom she has no prior professional relationship, one can only assume that she is doing it with d ‘others.
“This is alarming,” the attorney wrote.
Disputes over Gascón’s policies, some say, are to blame for a staffing shortage in the office.
About 120 prosecutors have left since Gascón took office; many fled shortly after announcing the series of changes he was making on day one, according to Eric Siddall, the union’s vice president representing prosecutors.
The reduced size of the staff has driven up the number of cases. A veteran prosecutor said some of his colleagues have complained their caseload has tripled or quadrupled since Gascón took office due to resignations and a backlog caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The complaints echo concerns raised by public defenders in recent years.
Gascón said many organizations experienced a “higher than normal rate of attrition” last year, but said many of the vacancies highlighted by Siddall had been filled.
Disputes over Gascón’s guidelines have also fueled a number of lawsuits by employees who believe they were demoted because of their opposition to the district attorney and his policies.
Jodi Link, the supervisor who was demoted following the conviction fiasco, is one of seven prosecutors to file a retaliatory lawsuit in the past two months. Last week, the two chief prosecutors of the Pomona District Attorney’s Office claimed in a lawsuit that they were punished for opposing the release of a gang member from state prison. , according to court records and Siddall.
Prosecutors — Peter Cagney and Karen Thorp — had a dispute with Gascón’s chief of staff, Joseph Iniguez, over which part of the gang member’s violent history to disclose at a hearing, Siddall said. Ultimately, Thorp presented this information to the court and the defendant’s release was denied, but Cagney and Thorp were quickly reassigned from managing the Pomona office to an auto insurance fraud unit, according to their trial.
The move is part of what some prosecutors see as a pattern of retaliation. Just days into Gascón’s term, former Compton Courthouse chief prosecutor Richard Doyle was demoted after refusing to dismiss a case on Gascón’s orders. Doyle sued and has since received a nearly $1 million settlement, his attorney said.
The lawsuits, Siddall said, are emblematic of a larger problem within the office, in which confusion over how prosecutors are supposed to enforce Gascón’s policies has repeatedly escalated into allegations of retaliation and penalties.
“There’s so much confusion about what the guidelines mean, what the policies mean, what you can and can’t do, and when the district attorney runs around and tells people 15 is more. enough time in jail, you can understand why the prosecutor in the Breckenridge case might also be confused,” Siddall said, referring to Scott Breckenridge, the criminal who asked for his 73-year sentence to be reduced.
Lawyers for Link, Cagney and Thorp declined to comment. Gascón would not discuss the specific allegations in the lawsuits, but said prosecutors continued to misrepresent his policy and intent in court.
He pointed to prosecutors in the bureau’s West Covina branch who he said misinterpreted his policy limiting when certain offenses can be prosecuted. As a result, several suspects who should have been charged with crimes have been released, he said.
Gascón didn’t say whether he thought the error was intentional, but one of his advisers insisted in an interview that some prosecutors “are willing to sacrifice public safety…to push the narrative. on these policies.
In a retort that underscores the hostility running through the office, Deputy Dist. Atti. Jonathan Hatami, one of the faces of the recall movement, insisted that it was Gascón who shied away from his responsibility for public safety and caused daily disagreements between prosecutors and their supervisors.
“There is an active war,” Hatami said.
A prosecutor said both sides shared blame. While Gascón’s decision to implement massive policy changes without speaking with his staff first has set the stage for turmoil, some of the recall’s most ardent supporters have escalated the situation with hyperbole and misinformation, a said the prosecutor.
“The office has become kind of an embarrassment, in a way. It’s so dysfunctional. We have some lunatics there,” the prosecutor said.
Los Angeles Times