Change or cronyism? D.A. George Gascón’s executive team met with mix of praise and suspicion
A public defender who has called for the abolition of prisons.
A young prosecutor who has tried only a handful of cases in a six-year career.
A veteran defense attorney who once described herself as a check against a racist criminal justice system.
In assembling the executive team that will serve as his closest advisors in the nation’s largest prosecutor’s office, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón brought together a group of people whose voices would have almost certainly been ignored under previous administrations.
The decision to place public defenders in leadership roles is emblematic of Gascón’s promise to radically change the culture of the L.A. County district attorney’s office. Building a justice system focused on rehabilitation, rather than punishment, requires the counsel of those who have seen clients’ lives ruined by excessively punitive sentences, he says.
Although the hires have drawn praise from the reformers and progressives who carried Gascón to victory in November, they are also serving to deepen the divide between the new district attorney and his line prosecutors, many of whom accuse Gascón of promoting loyalists who share his ideology instead of veteran prosecutors with the experience needed to guide the office.
Many critics have taken aim at Gascón’s decision to hire several members of the public defender’s office and to name relatively inexperienced prosecutor Joseph Iniguez as the acting second-in-command of the office. Of the 10 staffers who will report directly to Gascón, more than half came from the L.A. County public defender’s office, publicly supported his campaign or worked under him while he was San Francisco’s district attorney.
Although Gascón’s executive staff also includes two longtime L.A. County prosecutors and recently retired LAPD Deputy Chief Robert Arcos, some have alleged that he’s playing politics with powerful positions.
“What Mr. Gascón has done is taken his political apparatchik and installed them in the office. They’re the ones making the decisions now,” said Eric Siddall, vice president of the union representing deputy district attorneys. “The people that he’s installed, their primary qualification is loyalty to Mr. Gascón.”
Gascón said he was elected as a reformer and believed hiring advisors from both sides of the courtroom aisle was the best way to help shift the agency’s culture.
“I wanted to have a diversity of thought in the office. I believe that the best decisions are made when you have a broad spectrum of ideas that come to the table, unvarnished,” he said, adding that an inner circle dominated by law enforcement veterans would lead to “groupthink.” “It certainly is the kind of place that I think, in the long run, becomes more representative of our community. Not only are we diverse in terms of gender and race, but we are also diverse in terms of our thought process.”
Though experts say Gascón’s decision to empower those from outside the prosecutorial field falls in line with moves made by other progressive prosecutors around the country, some of his hires have courted controversy.
The announcement last month that former Public Defender Tiffiny Blacknell would join Gascón’s staff immediately roiled prosecutors and police.
During a contentious campaign, former Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey blasted Blacknell, who was part of Gascón’s public policy committee, over social media posts she made calling for the abolition of prisons and referring to LAPD officers as “barbarians” for their actions during protests against police brutality last summer. When rumors of her hiring first surfaced, some prosecutors began circulating a picture of Blacknell wearing a shirt that bore the phrase “the police are trained to kill us.”
Despite the consternation over her posts, Blacknell was far from alone in her criticisms of the Los Angeles Police Department last summer. During a week of large-scale protests throughout the city, officers were repeatedly shown on video using force many described as extreme. The LAPD is now the subject of a massive federal lawsuit alleging that officers used excessive force during the demonstrations.
Blacknell was also at the center of a controversy involving another member of Gascón’s executive team, Deputy Dist. Atty. Mario Trujillo.
In late December, Trujillo apparently offered a plea deal that would have seen one of Blacknell’s former clients serve only seven years in prison in a murder case for which they were facing a life sentence. Neither the prosecutor assigned to the case nor his boss had any idea that an offer had been made. Attorneys for the family of the victim immediately accused Gascón of trying to give preferential treatment to a political ally.
Gascón said that the offer was never officially submitted but that the sentence might have been proper because although Blacknell’s former client was the driver of a vehicle involved in the shooting, he had not actually fired a gun.
Still, he acknowledged that the optics of the situation were troubling.
“I’m very sensitive to the perception. Perception is reality,” he said. “But having said that, the outcome was the case went back to the people handling the case. They are handling the case independently.”
Trujillo, who has ignored repeated requests for comment from The Times, has also become a point of frustration for many of his colleagues. Despite holding the title of “community and government affairs liaison,” the veteran prosecutor has appeared in court as Gascón’s proxy on more than one occasion in cases in which the newly elected district attorney wanted to overrule line prosecutors.
“Having one of his political allies going in and making deals with other political allies should be viewed with a lot of suspicion, especially when the deal is extremely generous,” Siddall said of Trujillo, who was one of few prosecutors who publicly supported Gascón during the campaign. “Having a member of your political [apparatus] going and enforcing your will on individual cases undermines the process and opens up a question of whether cases are handled properly.”
A victims rights attorney also argued in court last month that Gascón’s decision to hire former Public Defender Alisa Blair to advise him on juvenile policy created a conflict of interest.
In a motion to disqualify the district attorney’s office from prosecuting a case in which a juvenile was charged with killing two women in Wilmington before setting their apartment on fire, attorney Kathy Cady noted Blair was still employed by the public defender’s office last year when she wrote the district attorney’s office’s current policy on juvenile prosecutions, which inherently benefits juvenile defendants represented by her former employer.
“She was employed by the public defender’s office who is ethically bound to zealously represent every client, working in the same office that was and currently is representing this minor,” Cady wrote.
A judge rejected Cady’s motion and allowed the case to remain in juvenile court. Gascón scoffed at the idea that Blair’s position created a conflict in any way, noting his campaign promise not to try juveniles as adults. Though he described Blair’s input as a key component of his juvenile platform, he said he would have enacted the policy barring juvenile transfers on his own.
“You have to really stretch this in more than logical ways to say that somehow because Alisa was part of that transition team … that that created a conflict because it would benefit clients of the public defender’s office,” he said. “The reality is you have some people who are going to attack every policy and process I put in place.”
Eric Schweitzer, the immediate past president of California Attorneys for Criminal Justice, said Gascón’s critics are operating on a flawed premise that those who worked as defense attorneys lack the experience to guide a prosecutor’s office. If anything, Schweitzer said, prosecutors who shared Lacey’s views on criminal justice would serve as a hindrance to Gascón’s approach.
“You don’t need to be a D.A. to run a D.A.’s office,” he said. “I’m not going to say that any trained monkey can do it, but I think it comes down to time and grade in the criminal justice system, whether you’re defending or prosecuting. If a prosecutor transfers to the defense side, they take their grade with them. The experience, the courtroom experience, certainly is a valid criteria. These occupations are not polar opposites.”
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