Critical Reports by Grand Jury Raised Hackles

Times Staff Writer

The 1984-85 Orange County Grand Jury landed the first blow in a June 24 report that said the county Department of Education is largely unnecessary.

There is “no financial justification” for the department’s continued existence, the report said, “except to offer mandated services.”

Fred Koch, deputy superintendent of the department, had a quick reply: The grand jury study was “an amateurish bungle,” he said, and its report read “like a comic book.”

Although the bout was nastier than most, it was otherwise fairly representative of how the 19-member panel and county agencies dealt with each other during the grand jury’s yearlong term, which ended June 30.

In the 33 reports and letters it produced during its tenure, the grand jury managed to find something wrong, or at least not quite right, with just about every county agency.


‘Our Job Is to Be Gadflies’

In addition to the organizational structure of the Department of Education--which it found to be duplicating services provided by individual school districts--targets included mental and medical health services at county jails, the combined offices of sheriff and coroner, the juvenile court facilities and Albert Sitton Home for juveniles, hiring practices for county officials, a county campaign finance ordinance, selection and training procedures for foster parents and allocation of space in county offices.

“I have a sneaking suspicion that not only is very little known about the grand jury but that a lot of people in county government think we’re nuisances,” said former panel member Rose Beckman. “Our job is to be gadflies,” Beckman said.

She appears to be right on both counts.

The role of California’s grand juries has changed. Since a ruling by the state Supreme Court in 1978 guaranteed criminal defendants the right to a preliminary hearing, grand juries have handed down few criminal indictments. Now, their principal function is to evaluate the workings of county governments.

But a number of county officials, judges and attorneys suggest that in performing that function, the 1984-85 panel in Orange County not only raised hackles, it raised the question of whether a group of average citizens is really qualified to decide how county government should be run.

In its 1978 “Hawkins decision,” the Supreme Court ruled that criminal defendants who have been indicted have the right to a preliminary hearing as well, on the grounds that the indictment process--which is conducted in secret and in which only the prosecution’s side is heard--denied defendants equal protection of the law. Since most defendants prefer preliminary hearings--adversary proceedings in which defendants, through their attorneys, can present evidence and witnesses and cross-examine witnesses--most prosecutors regard indictments as a duplication of effort.

Two Indictment Requests

In Orange County, the 1984-85 grand jury was asked to consider only two requests for indictments. Although public defenders were pleased, prosecutors and judges said they wished the number had been higher. “Unless there’s legislation enabling them to set aside Hawkins, for all intents and purposes, the grand jury will be restricted,” said Presiding Judge Francisco Briseno of the criminal division of the Orange County Superior Court.

The 1984-85 grand jurors themselves were displeased with their restricted role. In a report issued May 23, they urged the Board of Supervisors to support a state constitutional amendment that would nullify the Hawkins decision. They reported that preliminary hearings often last much longer than indictment proceedings, at greater expense to taxpayers.

“I feel absolutely that the grand jury should be able to turn out more indictments,” said ex-foreman Thomas J. Kehoe. “The indictment system serves a very useful purpose when dealing with public officials or children, or a large number of defendants or innocent people when secrecy is in their favor.”

Left to earn their $25-a-day (plus mileage) salary by fulfilling their statutory charge of reporting on various aspects of county government, grand jurors found themselves going head-to-head with Orange County officials and staff members more than once.

One of their most controversial reports sprung from a request by county supervisors to determine whether the combined county position of sheriff and coroner created a conflict of interest. Although the grand jury found that 37 of 44 criminal justice and other workers questioned perceived an inherent conflict of interest in the combination, it stopped short of recommending that the offices be split. Instead, it said that “in order to remove the perceived conflict-of-interest issue with respect to the current organization, the Board of Supervisors (should) determine if the positions of sheriff and coroner should be separated.” Assemblyman Gil Ferguson (R-Newport Beach), who authored a bill to require separate sheriff’s and coroner’s offices, as well as Supervisors Ralph Clark and Thomas F. Riley promptly criticized the grand jury for sidestepping the issue. When asked to explain why the grand jury panel decided not to make a recommendation, administration committee chairman Henry Klipstein invoked the statutory secrecy that cloaks grand jury deliberations.

Indecisiveness Accusation

“You swear an oath. You can’t divulge any deliberations. All I can tell you is that we had to have 12 votes (to make a recommendation),” Klipstein said.

Indecisiveness was not the only charge leveled against the 1984-85 Orange County panel by county personnel. Supervisors complained that reports were sometimes inaccurate or ambiguously worded. Sara Walker, assistant director of the Social Services Agency, clashed with the grand jury over statistics on an increase in the number of children entering foster care in Orange County in 1984 over the previous year.

The grand jury’s report, issued June 19, estimated the increase at 47% and found the foster care system overloaded. However, Health Care Agency officials and grand juror Phyllis Drayton, chairman of the human services committee, confirmed that the number actually referred to the rise in reported cases of child abuse and that foster care placements had remained constant.

Looking back on the incident, Walker said, “Numbers can be confusing, and it’s easy to underestimate the time requirements and the number of people (the grand jury) has to talk to. Maybe they could have gotten a better feel for the figures and the statistics with consultants.”

In fact, the grand jury had a contract with the accounting firm of Peat Marwick Mitchell & Co. for $60,000 and asked for $50,267 in audits and studies during its term (the 1983-84 grand jury spent $80,794). Several grand jurors said their committee talked with the consultants regularly, even when a study or audit was not commissioned. “We consulted with (Peat Marwick) on every issue, and often they said they thought we could do a good job ourselves,” said former grand juror Beckman, who served on the human services as well as the education committee. “We all tried extremely hard to understand what was going on, and, if there was any confusion, it was not on our part.

‘Give Us Credit’

“I’m so sick and tired of being looked down on; I wish they would give us credit for the sense we’ve got.”

Some county officials said they were sympathetic with the grand jury’s often-difficult task of understanding and evaluating complex issues on short notice and said they thought the grand jurors did their job well. Although most said it was difficult to compare the effectiveness of specific grand juries, each of which has its own “personality,” supervisors Chairman Riley said he would rate the 1984-85 panel as one of the best in the last 10 years.

“They tried to be very aggressive and put qualified people in areas of investigation. Somehow, because they were very available to us, this grand jury gave me the impression they were very interested in being helpful,” he said. However, some of Riley’s colleagues said they wished grand jurors had been more available before their 33 reports and letters were issued to the press. Several mentioned the panel’s final report, containing a critical letter from Kehoe, who accused the supervisors of stalling on finding sites for a new airport and County Jail and said the $1 million the board spent on outside consultants in fiscal year 1984-85 was excessive.

“I have to believe (the report) was made without doing a thorough analysis of the Central Accounting Office and other offices,” Supervisor Bruce Nestande said. “They didn’t talk to my staff or me about why we do what we do. You would think they would have approached the board and asked for costs and figures before they wrote the report. It’s not fair to disagree before you seek out people’s rationales.”

Supervisor Roger Stanton also said he would have liked to have been consulted before the charges of spending too much money on outside consultants were made public. “One thing about an organization is that you can’t hire all the experts you need in every area, and it becomes cost-effective to use the experts you have in the community,” he said. Riley said he told the grand jurors just before their term ended that he was disturbed that the panel did not give supervisors an advance look at its reports, because the policy made it difficult to answer questions from reporters.

Difficult Position

“When they make a report to the press and we haven’t seen it, it puts us in a difficult position,” he said.

Former grand juror Linda Linder defended her colleagues and herself. “We are an objective group, and we don’t show favoritism. Each time a report was released, everyone, including the supervisors, was notified the day prior. If that wasn’t enough time for the board to assimilate the information, maybe they needed to get in at 8:30 a.m. to read it.”

Grand jurors and county staff members also clashed over several reports critical of medical conditions in Orange County jails. The jury recommended that responsibility for psychiatric and medical services be transferred from the Health Care Agency to the Sheriff’s Department, after an inmate with a history of mental problems committed suicide in November, 1984, and Health Care Agency officials refused to turn over his psychiatric records to Sheriff-Coroner Brad Gates.

In addition, grand jurors recommended that jail medical services be put under the command of a single administrator, who would report to the Health Care Agency, and that a licensed pharmacist be hired to dispense medication in the jails. Such changes, they said, would improve employee morale and avoid problems of overwork that occurred because the program manager-medical director was also a practicing physician.

Recalling the effort of putting the reports together, grand jurors labeled the process “frustrating.” They said Health Care Agency Interim Director Robert Love was difficult to reach and balked at supplying them with information.

Linder, who chaired the criminal justice committee, said Love was “very difficult to reach.” Beckman added, “We were always shunted to other people. I got the feeling he looked down his nose at us as if to say, ‘hurry up, I have other things to do.’ ”

Love declined to comment on the criticism. Nestande, however, noting that the reports also criticized the supervisors for inaction, said they illustrated a flaw in several of the grand jury’s investigations. “I think it’s unfortunate when they couch (findings) in terms of the board’s not being aware of (a problem), when the board’s been working on it all along.”

Frustration Expressed

Grand jurors pointed out that the several of their recommendations had been made by previous grand juries as well. They also expressed frustration that the Board of Supervisors appeared unresponsive to their reports.

But former grand juror Charles Andresen, at least, was philosophical about the grand jury’s job. “There were some things we looked into that were beyond our ability to cure, like the way the jail is run, the problems they have getting financing from the board (of supervisors) and the way the board is set up and operates,” he said.

“We come in expecting to turn the world over and we realize more and more as the year goes on that we can’t do it. All we can do is pick away at things and recommend to the next year’s grand jury that they take a look at them.”