A prominent Orange County supervisor unjustly obtained a hiring freeze on the Office of Independent Review, crippling the government watchdog agency and reducing its public image to that of “window dressing,” according to a grand jury report issued Thursday, June 30.
The report questioned the independence of the OIR, which monitors the Sheriff’s Department and four other justice-related county agencies.
“The OIR’s recommendations and advice should be without influence. However, the OIR is experiencing unjustified restrictions from the (Board of Supervisors) as it has in the past,” the report concluded.
The hiring freeze came after the Sheriff’s Department expressed displeasure with an OIR report, the grand jury said.
Sheriff’s spokesperson Carrie Braun said the department in no way influenced a hiring freeze and that the grand jury report did not accurately reflect the agency’s relationship with the OIR.
“We are committed to having a cooperative relationship between the Department and the OIR as it is in the best interests of the community we serve,” Braun said in a prepared statement.
Supervisor Don Wagner responded that the OIR is not meant to be independent of the Board of Supervisors.
“The OIR is independent of any departments it’s supposed to review, it’s not independent of the board. It’s a tool of the board,” Wagner said.
In the county’s 2021-22 budget, the board approved an estimated $400,000 for the OIR to hire two new attorneys to join the small office’s existing two members. But the hiring was stalled for about four months after the OIR published an unflattering report about the sheriff’s policies for using force.
The OIR concluded that those policies were generally unclear, confusing, incorrect and without empathy, endangering deputies and the public alike.
According to the grand jury, the Sheriff’s Department was displeased and complained to an unnamed board member. In response, the board member requested the hiring freeze from the county’s chief executive office. This was done without approval of the board.
Although the board member is not named by the grand jury, nor is the sheriff’s representative, a letter from Sheriff Don Barnes contesting the OIR investigation to Supervisor Andrew Do is included with the grand jury report.
Also included is a letter from then-OIR Director Sergio Perez to Barnes seeking a meeting after the use-of-force study. Perez’s invitation was not accepted.
Do did not respond to a request for comment.
Freeze undermined credibility
“The effect of that unwarranted hiring freeze appeared to undermine the credibility of the OIR and challenge its independence,” said the grand jury report. “This interference with the OIR through budgetary means repeats a pattern that began with its first iteration dating back over a decade. The decision to place any restrictions on any department’s budget, hiring, or operations should not be under the control of a single supervisor.”
Supervisor Wagner said he did not recall that a formal freeze had been imposed, but that there were questions that needed to be answered.
“This is an overreaction by the grand jury, a misreading of the board’s action with the OIR,” Wagner said.
OIR created after jail beating
The OIR was formed in 2008 in the wake of a deadly beating by jail inmates while a sheriff’s deputy watched television nearby. An internal sheriff’s probe later glossed over the killing while a grand jury investigation found systemic abuse and laziness among deputies at the Theo Lacy jail in Orange.
The OIR’s initial job was to monitor the Sheriff’s Department, but the watchdog soon was widely seen as too cozy with then-Sheriff Sandra Hutchens. Directors were changed and the office was shuttered for two years while the board tried to determine how to proceed. Some board members talked about closing the office for good, but they ultimately broadened it to include other departments, such as the District Attorney’s Office, the Public Defender’s Office, the Probation Department and social services.
In 2020, county supervisors hired scrappy civil rights attorney Perez to take over the office. Perez, who brought in investigator T. Jack Morse, was aggressive and, in the process, generated complaints from some of the departments he was trying to monitor.
Perez resigned in April to become inspector general of Los Angeles’ troubled Department of Water and Power.
“This resignation may have resulted in part from the prolonged and untimely hiring freeze,” said the grand jury.
Perez declined comment
Morse left this month, leaving a large hole in the OIR. The board installed former County Counsel Ben DeMayo as the interim director. DeMayo declined comment.
“Without a permanent executive director and sufficient staffing, the OIR is restricted in its ability to function as intended. The lack of sufficient staffing will create more roadblocks for the OIR in its ability to effectively provide input and oversight of the public agencies under its purview,” said the grand jury report.
A search is ongoing to fill those positions. The grand jury is recommending that the board give the office the staffing that the new executive director says it needs and not change the office’s budget without a board vote.
Source: Orange County Register