By Mark Gutglueck
County civil grand jurors who have taken up investigations deemed highly problematic for top elected officials, senior county staff members and department heads and the county itself have been forced to drop those lines of inquiry and threatened with prosecution if they persist in exploring those issues, the Sentinel is informed.
The subjects involved, the Sentinel has learned, pertain to the failure of the county’s child and family services division to stem the abuse of youths in the county’s foster care system, including incidents that resulted in the deaths of some children; sheriff’s department personnel acquiring title to vehicles impounded during department operations on a far larger scale than was previously reported by the immediate past civil grand jury; sheriff’s department supervisors imposing on deputies so-called ticket writing quotas as part of their patrol assignments; incidents in which county jail inmates were furnished or otherwise allowed access to intoxicants; and the use of sheriff’s department
helicopters for purposes wholly unrelated to law enforcement, public safety and rescue operations to transport high ranking department members, department members’ wives and girlfriends, campaign donors, political figures or their associates to locales both inside and outside the county, in some cases for highly inappropriate purposes.
What is suggested by the reports is that District Attorney Mike Ramos has overstepped his legitimate authority as San Bernardino County’s top prosecutor to quash or have the deputy prosecutor overseeing the grand jury quash the investigations, either to protect from prosecution or save from embarrassment certain county officials or to limit the potential of county liability that might ensue if the degree to which certain county employees acted misappropriately, negligently or illegally were to be documented. It has been reported that in one case in particular, Ramos engaged in what might be construed as an effort to obstruct justice by meeting with top county officials in a “strategy session” aimed at devising a “cover story.”
At issue in the brewing scandal is whether top county officials have interfered with the legitimate independent investigative purview of the grand jury or whether grand jurors themselves violated the confidentiality of the grand jury’s proceedings.
All counties in California are required under the California Constitution as well as Title 4 and Title 5 of the California Penal Code along with Government Code 3060 to have at least one grand jury impaneled at all times.
Most standing grand juries in California, including San Bernardino County’s grand jury, are referred to as civil grand juries and have a session that is coterminous with the government fiscal year running from July 1 through June 30. These grand juries do not typically deal with criminal matters, per se, but are chartered to focus primarily on oversight of government institutions at the county level or lower, such as cities or water, fire, school and community services districts or any entity which receives public money. If in the course of such an investigation the grand jury comes upon indications or evidence of real or potential criminal activity, it is at liberty to gather that information and both pass it along to the appropriate law enforcement agency and document it in a report, in either ad hoc form in the annual grand jury report put out toward the end of its term in June.
Grand juries have the authority to charge public officials with “willful or corrupt misconduct in office.” Such accusations under the California Constitution and state law are to be tried in the same manner as a criminal indictment, and may not be dismissed for political or extra-legal motives. The definition of “willful misconduct in office” specifies serious misconduct that constitutes criminal behavior or “purposeful failure to carry out mandatory duties of office.”
In San Bernardino County, going back at least as far as district attorney Jerome Kavanaugh in the late 1930s and 1940s, the district attorney’s office has provided the civil grand jury with an advisor. That policy continued under all subsequent district attorneys – Lowell Lathrop, Jim Cramer, Dennis Kottmeier, Dennis Stout and Mike Ramos. And while the advisor’s role is supposed to be limited to providing guidance as to the law and its applicability with regard to the matters taken up by the grand jurors, in San Bernardino County the advisor has taken on a more powerful and controlling role than is provided for under the law, often leading the grand jury, seeking to control it or curtail it, rather than simply serving to provide legal guidance. In many cases over the years the areas into which grand juries have sought to insert themselves have been rife with embarrassment or worse for the district attorney, his office, or the offices or functions of his political allies and associates in and out of county government. In some cases, a grand jury has gotten a hold on some issue that, if or when fully exposed and documented, might have or did lead to individuals, groups, businesses or entities harmed by that action filing civil action in the form of a lawsuit that could have resulted in or did lead to an adjudicated verdict or settlement that could have or did cost the county substantial amounts of money. On more than one occasion, these incipient investigations have been smothered by the grand jury advisor, almost always at the insistence of the district attorney himself.
Yet that is not how the system was intended to work as, indeed, the civil grand jury process was designed as a means of accountability for all elements of the local governmental structure, including the district attorney and his office.
It is that abasement of the grand jury’s function that has led to the current contretemps.
The 2014-15 Grand Jury took up a number of issues, including at least three pertaining to the sheriff’s department. Those involved looking into the conditions at five of the detention facilities/jails the department runs, the department’s towing procedures and an examination of the department’s aviation division.
All three of those investigations dealt with potentially explosive issues.
Even as the grand jury was looking into the conditions in the county jails, four separate lawsuits were filed in roughly the same time frame alleging a pattern of guard-on-prisoner brutality that included beatings, the use of electric shock and sadistic sexual abuse. The FBI launched an investigation as well, “walking off” from the West Valley Detention Center four jailors who were subsequently, along with one other deputy, fired by the department. Nevertheless, the 2014-15 Grand Jury Report made no mention of the abuse of prisoners.
The investigation of the department’s towing procedures came about after complaints were made that vehicles impounded by tow companies with towing service arrangements with the sheriff’s department’s various substations were subsequently purchased by department personnel at lien sales conducted by those towing companies. While the grand jury report acknowledged reports of “employees purchasing vehicles at lien sales after a vehicle has been impounded by a tow company or after a vehicle had been seized during an investigation,” the report made no specific references to the sheriff’s department personnel who had actually made those purchases. Rather, the report stated somewhat languidly that steps are to be taken to put into each of the sheriff’s stations’ towing service agreements an addendum that states “All companies participating in the towing service agreement will no longer be allowed or permitted to sell and or give vehicles, motorcycles, motorized vehicles and/or any other property directly related to the towing businesses that are currently enrolled in the towing service agreement to a sheriff’s department employee and/or their immediate family.”
And the report called for the sections in the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department Manual related to vehicle towing policy and rewards and gratuities be revised to state: “In the performance of duty, deputy sheriffs frequently seize the personal property of citizens. The act of seizing another’s property is one of the most invasive and litigated activities by law enforcement. In order to avoid any appearance that a seizure was for personal gain, employees shall not possess property that has been seized by the department. This includes the purchase of seized property by a third party for an employee’s use.”
The grand jury’s review of the sheriff’s aviation division resulted in similarly bland conclusions. “Not all flights are recorded in the Aviation Flight Logs,” the report stated, while further noting, “The majority of waivers for civilian ride-alongs, including background checks, are not properly completed and /or approved prior to the applicants’ flights on San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department aircraft” and “Staff personnel are not adhering to division standard operating procedures.”
Coinciding with the release of the grand jury report at the end of June was publicity about a lawsuit previously filed by Ontario-based attorney Christopher L. Gaspard on behalf of sheriff’s sergeant Tim Jordan, who is now retired, and current deputies Brian Moler and Jeff Wetmore against San Bernardino County and the sheriff’s department alleging they experienced retaliation from their immediate superiors and other higher ranking department members for the resistance they lodged after their immediate supervisors “imposed on the motor patrol officers a 200 traffic ticket per month quota and instituted a traffic citation tracking system in an effort to ensure they met that quota.” Also according to that suit, “In early 2011 Sgt Jordan discovered that sheriff’s personnel assigned to the department’s narcotics unit would routinely tow vehicles and flip them by purchasing the vehicles at lien sales and selling them for profit. The sheriff’s personnel who were flipping towed cars would call a particular tow company owned by the father of a deputy sheriff. This would occur regardless of the location from which the car was towed. When the vehicle came up for lien sale the owner of the tow company would contact the deputies and offer them the first chance of purchasing the vehicle. The owner of the tow company would discount the vehicles, often selling them for thousands of dollars below bluebook value.”
On August 27, 2015, Fox 11 News in Los Angeles reported that “children who were under the supervision of the San Bernardino County Department of Children and Family Services … were being abused, tortured, and killed.” According to that report, in certain cases, children had been entrusted to foster parents who had previously been caught abusing children living in their homes. In one of those cases, according to Fox 11, a child had died at the hand of an abusive foster parent after the San Bernardino County Department of Children and Family Services was made aware of the sadistic nature of that foster parent. The Fox 11 News report made reference to an ongoing grand jury investigation.
In recent days, reports have circulated that a sheriff’s department command level officer at the Rancho Cucamonga station supervising an inmate work crew given the task of cleaning up after a civic event acquiesced in allowing some of the trustees share some alcohol left over from the celebration. The grand jury, apparently, received a report about what had occurred.
What is now being bruited around the county is that members of the current 2015-16 Grand Jury have been told that their immediate previous predecessors – the 2014-15 Grand Jury – had been prevailed upon to soft pedal the sheriff’s department issues they had taken up. So, members of the 2015-16 grand jury sought to again take up brutality in the jails, the purchase of impounded vehicles by sheriff’s department personnel, the ticket quotas imposed upon traffic officers and the misuse of sheriff’s department helicopters. And in reaction to information brought to them or which they sought out themselves, the current grand jury members have likewise attempted to dig into the mismanagement in the San Bernardino County Department of Children and Family Services and its oversight of the foster parent program as well as the report relating to the provision of alcohol to county inmates. In each case, however, the grand jury’s members were told to back off and stay out of those particular matters. Reportedly, in some cases, seeing their investigations thwarted by the grand jury advisor and the district attorney’s office resulted in a few of the grand jurors seeking to have the issues addressed in some other forum, as is evinced in the surfacing of the report by Fox 11 relating to deaths of children at the hand of their foster parents. This in turn has resulted in the grand jurors being threatened with prosecution for leaking what is deemed “confidential” information relating to the various grand jury investigations.
Indeed, grand jury investigations and proceedings are considered to be confidential and, when a grand jury is impaneled, the members are informed of such and sworn to secrecy. That level of security with regard to the proceedings is applied for a variety of reasons, including ensuring that the integrity of the investigation is maintained, that witnesses are not compromised by being able to communicate with one another ahead of time to coordinate their stories, to prevent the destruction of evidence and to protect the reputations of innocent parties who may be an initial target of such inquiries or may have falsely fallen under suspicion.
In the instant matter, however, those close to the investigations have suggested that the threats issued to the grand jurors to the effect that they will be prosecuted for speaking out have been made not to maintain the integrity of the proceedings but rather to mask that the proceedings have been hijacked by individuals highly placed within the county government structure who have an interest in or motive toward shutting the investigations down.
Moreover, indications have surfaced to suggest that county officials are militating to seek out and identify witnesses to the alleged criminal acts or wrongdoing that had been the focus of the quashed grand jury investigations and either punish them or threaten them to prevent them from offering information or testimony.
The most compelling demonstration in this regard is a meeting said to have taken place on Friday August 28 which was attended by County Executive Officer Greg Devereaux, District Attorney Mike Ramos, Children and Family Services Director Marlene Hagen and a handful of other high level county officials in which a cover story and talking points were outlined that were calculated to defuse the issue of negligence in the San Bernardino County Children and Family Services Department which led to the deaths of children in the foster parent system it oversaw. In this way, it appears that Ramos, whose office would be the lead agency in prosecuting any individuals shown to be culpable in criminal acts leading to the deaths of the children in the foster care system, was a primary architect in an effort to obstruct justice.
Asked about the August 28 meeting, David Wert, the county spokesman, did not confirm it had taken place, but stopped short of denying it had occurred. “I haven’t heard anything about that,” Wert said. He acknowledged the context surrounding it.
“Fox 11 did a series of reports along that story line,” he said, but asserted concern within the county governmental structure with regard to the reports “did not rise to the level that would require a response from the CEO and the district attorney.”
Wert nevertheless indicated that the reports did get the county’s attention, in doing so implying that some order of violation of the secrecy protocol pertaining to grand jury proceedings might have occurred.
“It did strike us as odd that Fox would report about any investigation,” Wert said. He then alluded to the secrecy of grand jury proceedings and the confidentiality grand jurors are expected to maintain with regard to them. Disclosure of the very existence or any of the substance of the investigation would be improper all the way around, he suggested, on the part of members of the grand jury or those brought in as witnesses. When witnesses are questioned before the grand jury, Wert said, investigators “admonish them not to disclose” what they have been questioned about.
Wert then cast doubt on whether the grand jury was even looking into the issues outlined in the Fox 11 reports. “Children and Family Services had not been contacted by the grand jury,” he said.
As to some of the grand jurors being threatened with arrest or prosecution for persisting in their efforts to investigate the Children and Family Services division and sheriff’s department issues, Wert said, “Who would threaten a grand juror? That would defy all common sense. I haven’t heard anything to that effect.”
Unknown at this point is whether deputy district attorney Michael Dauber, the current grand jury advisor, was also in attendance at the August 28 meeting. Reports persist that Dauber has taken a lead role in quashing the efforts by several members of the grand jury to push forward with investigations on the foster child deaths, ticket quotas, impounded vehicle title transfers, misuse of the sheriff’s helicopter and the provision of alcohol to inmates.
Despite efforts to keep those issues from surfacing, information with regard to two of those cases – those related to sheriff’s personnel obtaining titles to impounded vehicles and the profligate use of the sheriff’s department’s helicopters – is hemorrhaging into public view.
The civil case brought by Gaspard on behalf of Jordan, Moler and Wetmore is taking place in a venue and under circumstances involving court pleadings, exhibits and depositions which fall beyond the ability of the grand jury or the district attorney’s office to contain. At stake is the revelation of the identities of department personnel and/or their family members who purchased for their own use or purchased and then sold at considerable profit multiple vehicles they had a hand in having impounded.
As embarrassing as that is to the sheriff’s department, the misuse of the department helicopters is even more scandalizing. At play are reports that this matter replicates a pattern of misuse of department aircraft going back more than thirty years. According to a former grand jury foreman, department helicopters on occasion were used to ferry a former California State Senator to a brothel in San Diego on a fairly consistent basis. A former sheriff’s department pilot reported that both the sheriff’s department helicopters and the department’s planes were used to carry department members, in nearly all cases high ranking ones, including the then-sheriff and then-undersheriff together with their guests on excursions to out-of-state locations, for extended weekend get-togethers. Those guests included in some cases elected officials, personal and political associates, the wives of the sheriff’s department personnel or the wives of the officials and associates and on occasion other female escorts. One common destination of those flights was what is described as a hunting and fishing lodge in Idaho.
The recent abuse of the department helicopters is said to feature similar whirls to resort locations both inside and outside San Bernardino County.
Of note is that the current sheriff, John McMahon, has been reported to own property in Idaho. For several years in the middle of the first decade of the current century while he was serving as the sheriff’s station commander in Apple Valley, McMahon drove a pickup truck that had Idaho license plates.
Ramos and McMahon stand as the two co-regents of the law enforcement establishment in San Bernardino County and Ramos has formed a firm and fast political alliance with McMahon, brooking no criticism of his colleague or the department he heads. The lion’s share of the grand jury investigations that have been suppressed in the current grand jury term have targeted McMahon’s department.
A phone call to the grand jury office on Tuesday, January 26 was fielded by the secretary to the grand jury, Sarah Mayne, who said that Dauber, the grand jury advisor, “was feeling ill this morning. I don’t know if he will be returning from lunch today or not.” Seven further attempts to reach Dauber by phone on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday including three phone messages left on his answering machine, did not elicit a response.
Neither Ramos nor his spokesman, Christopher Lee, responded to requests for comment.
By Mark Gutglueck