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Five years later: Some fear Orange County jail snitch scandal will go unpunished

James Queally, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

In 2015, then-California Attorney General Kamala Harris launched an investigation into the use of informants. For years, according to Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes, state prosecutors ignored repeated requests for an update on the probe.

News that the state had ended its inquiry with no prosecution came during a hearing Friday, at which Sanders was arguing for the release of records related to a criminal case. Deputy Attorney Gen. Darren Shaffer gave no reason why or when the investigation had shut down. The office of current California Attorney General Xavier Becerra declined to comment. Carrie Braun, a Sheriff's Department spokeswoman, said her office had not been notified of the results of the attorney general's investigation.

Sanders, who described the state review as "a sham from beginning to end," said a judge will decide whether records related to the probe can be made public on May 10.

A spokeswoman for Harris rejected any criticism, saying the former attorney general was instrumental in launching the criminal investigation and pushing for the civil grand jury review. Lily Adams said Harris believes the informant scandal "flowed from a culture that encourages an ends-justify-the-means approach, complemented by a program of plausible deniability."

The slow pace of the state investigation led Barnes to take an unusual step earlier this year, when he restarted an administrative review into potential deputy misconduct before the criminal probe was completed.

"I can't wait forever on them, and we have to do our job -- which is to hold our personnel accountable, if necessary," he said during a recent interview.

 

Whether records from that internal investigation would bring the public new information, however, is another question. While the passage of Senate Bill 1421 last year opened up some police disciplinary records, they only become public if an officer or deputy is found to have committed wrongdoing for specific offenses.

Two of the deputies at the center of the investigation -- Seth Tunstall and Bill Grover -- resigned in March, Braun said. A third deputy, whom she did not identify, remains under internal investigation.

Braun said deputies can decide to retire while under internal review if "no recommendations for action" had been made at the time of their departure.

Sanders has called on authorities to dig deeper to determine how many additional cases might be tainted by the misuse of informants. In court filings last year, he said he had identified 146 cases where deputies testified without their past connections to the sheriff's Special Handling Unit being disclosed.

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