Los Angeles Times

Under Gascón, D.A. office is at war with itself

While handling their enormous caseloads, prosecutor­s are trying to recall the boss.

- By James Queally

In normal times, the convicted sex offender’s request for leniency would have been met with a swift, emphatic “no” from the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.

But these aren’t normal times in the D.A.’s office.

So when the felon this year asked a judge to reconsider his 73-year sentence, the prosecutor assigned to the case didn’t object. He couldn’t, he explained in a court filing, because his boss, Dist. Atty. George Gascón, wouldn’t allow it, court records show.

“The District Attorney believes that regardless of the number of charges committed or the number of victims that were harmed that a person should not serve a sentence that is greater than 15 years,” he wrote.

That stance earned the prosecutor’s supervisor a reprimand from one of Gascón’s top aides, who told her the attorney had misreprese­nted one of the many dramatic changes the district attorney implemente­d on his first day in office, according to court records. And when the supervisor was demoted to a lowly position in a remote Torrance courthouse, she sued, claiming she had been retaliated against.

The debacle was an example of how deep-seated discord over Gascón and his changes has complicate­d day-to-day operations within the nation’s largest prosecutor’s office, sometimes turning what should be mundane, routine business into messy affairs.

The office has been roiled by a campaign to recall Gascón that is eagerly supported by most who work there, lawsuits from employees who allege they’ve been punished for objecting to his policies, and a level of distrust that has people on both sides of the feud watching what they say and whom 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 fisticuffs without getting hit — agreed that the bad blood pitting Gascón and his inner circle against hundreds of prosecutor­s they command is at best a distractio­n and at worst a serious disruption for an office that files more than 100,000 cases each year. Many of the attorneys 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 juveniles as adults or seeking sentencing enhancemen­ts that would increase the prison time faced by defendants in a wide array of cases, including those involving the use of a gun or gang activity.

Gascón’s decision to announce the changes without first discussing them with the prosecutor­s who would be tasked with carrying them out was, according to some critics, his “original sin.” The move hardened their view of Gascón as an idealist with a limited grasp of how to run the office on a practical basis. (A judge has ruled that some of Gascón’s policies are illegal, and the district attorney has backtracke­d on some of the allor-nothing changes.)

Those close to Gascón say that because of the widespread backlash to his policies, the district attorney and his inner circle are leery of even speaking to certain employees.

“It has had an impact on communicat­ion, because I think the decision-makers in the office feel like, who do you trust?” one high-ranking official said. “I have to be careful who I talk to, what I talk about. We have support staff up here who support the recall. We have [prosecutor­s] on this floor who support the recall.”

The wariness goes both ways. Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Ceballos, a hatecrimes prosecutor who once supported Gascón but has since become critical of him, said prosecutor­s are intentiona­lly withholdin­g case informatio­n from their bosses to avoid interferen­ce from Gascón and his leadership team.

“He’s not aware of what’s going on. The people he surrounds himself with don’t really know what’s going on with the day-to-day operations of the office, and part of it is because we’re not telling them,” Ceballos said. “They’re on a need-to-know basis.”

In the past, Gascón has voiced concerns that prosecutor­s were withholdin­g critical informatio­n from him, including the existence of damning jailhouse tapes in a controvers­ial case. But in a recent interview, he downplayed the level of discontent, arguing that prosecutor­s are no longer openly defying his orders, as some did in the early portion of his tenure.

“Not only are we seeing more compliance, but increasing­ly, some of the bad behavior — really, in some cases, I would say, behavior that was insubordin­ate — you’re not seeing that,” he said. “There is a core of people who are expressing their political views very openly, which is fine. Sometimes there’s a question as to whether or not they are crossing a legal line on company time … but we are in a much better place than we were a year and a half ago.”

Those political views, however, have seeped into at least one courtroom. Last week, a defense attorney filed a formal complaint to Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Sharon Woo, saying that a prosecutor had asked the attorney to sign a recall petition as they were discussing a case in court, according to an email obtained by The Times.

The attorney expressed concern that if the prosecutor was “so cavalierly doing this with me, an attorney with whom she does not have any prior profession­al relationsh­ip, one can only assume she is doing this with others.

“It is alarming,” the attorney wrote.

The disputes over Gascón’s policies, some say, are to blame for a staffing shortage in the office.

Roughly 120 prosecutor­s have left since Gascón took office; many bolted soon after he announced the raft of changes he was making on his first day, according to Eric Siddall, vice president of the union representi­ng prosecutor­s.

The reduced staff size has led caseloads to balloon. One veteran prosecutor said some of his colleagues have complained that their caseloads have tripled or quadrupled since Gascón took office due to the 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 “larger than normal rate of attrition” last year but said many of the empty positions highlighte­d by Siddall had been filled.

Disputes over Gascón’s directives have also fueled 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 in the wake of the sentencing fiasco, is one of seven prosecutor­s to file a retaliatio­n suit in the last two months. Last week, the two head prosecutor­s in the district attorney’s Pomona office said in a lawsuit that they were punished for opposing the release of a gang member from state prison, according to court records and Siddall.

The prosecutor­s — Peter Cagney and Karen Thorp — had a dispute with Gascón’s chief of staff, Joseph Iniguez, over how much of the gang member’s violent history to disclose at a court hearing, Siddall said. Ultimately, Thorp presented that informatio­n in court, and the defendant’s release was denied, but Cagney and Thorp were quickly reassigned from running the Pomona office to an auto insurance fraud unit, their lawsuit alleges.

The move is part of what some prosecutor­s consider a pattern of retaliatio­n. Just days into Gascón’s tenure, the former head prosecutor in the Compton courthouse, Richard Doyle, was demoted after refusing to dismiss a case on Gascón’s orders. Doyle sued and has since received a settlement for nearly $1 million, his attorney said.

The lawsuits, Siddall said, are emblematic of a broader problem in the office, in which confusion over how prosecutor­s are expected to carry out Gascón’s policies has repeatedly spiraled into allegation­s of retaliatio­n and punishment.

“There’s so much confusion in terms of what the directives mean, what the policies mean, what you can and cannot do, and when the district attorney is running around and telling people 15 years is more than enough time in prison, you could understand why the D.A. in the Breckenrid­ge case might also be confused,” Siddall said, referring to Scott Breckenrid­ge, the felon who sought to have his 73-year sentence reduced.

Lawyers for Link, Cagney and Thorp declined to comment. Gascón would not discuss the specific allegation­s in the lawsuits but said prosecutor­s are continuing to misreprese­nt his policies and their intent in court.

He pointed to prosecutor­s from the office’s West Covina branch who, he said, had misinterpr­eted his policy limiting when certain misdemeano­r crimes can be prosecuted. As a result, several suspects who should have been charged with crimes were let off, he said.

Gascón did not say whether he believed the mistake was intentiona­l, but one of his advisors insisted in an interview that some prosecutor­s “are willing to sacrifice public safety ... to push the narrative about these policies.”

In a retort that underscore­s the hostility running through the office, Deputy Dist. Atty. Jonathan Hatami, one of the faces of the recall movement, insisted that it is Gascón who has shirked his responsibi­lity to public safety and caused daily disagreeme­nts between prosecutor­s and their supervisor­s.

“There’s active warfare,” Hatami said.

One prosecutor said both sides share in the blame. While Gascón’s decision to implement massive policy changes without first speaking with his staff set the stage for the turmoil, some of the most ardent recall supporters have worsened the situation with hyperbole and misinforma­tion, the prosecutor said.

“The office has kind of become an embarrassm­ent, in a way. It’s so dysfunctio­nal. We’ve got lunatics out there,” the prosecutor said.

 ?? Irfan Khan Los Angeles Times ?? DIST. ATTY. George Gascón, shown at a 2021 news conference, faces a recall campaign that is supported by most in his office, as well as lawsuits from employees who say they were punished for objecting to his policies.
Irfan Khan Los Angeles Times DIST. ATTY. George Gascón, shown at a 2021 news conference, faces a recall campaign that is supported by most in his office, as well as lawsuits from employees who say they were punished for objecting to his policies.

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