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Outspoken prosecutor who clashed with D.A. Gascón now target of internal investigation

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón.
(Associated Press)

A prosecutor who clashed with Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón over a controversial case involving a transgender defendant is now the subject of an internal investigation and also has been accused of making offensive remarks about the defendant.

The investigation into Shea Sanna, a deputy district attorney, stems from allegations that he misused county resources, released confidential information and made inappropriate public statements, said Greg Smith, Sanna’s attorney.

The allegations against Sanna, Smith said, were made in a vaguely worded letter from an outside law firm conducting the investigation. In an interview, Sanna said he “absolutely” believes the investigation is an attempt to retaliate against him, and Smith said he feared the move could have a “chilling effect” on other prosecutors who are critical of Gascón.

But Sanna has also been accused of making insensitive remarks about Hannah Tubbs, a 26-year-old transgender woman who in 2014, when she was 17, sexually assaulted a 10-year-old girl in Palmdale, according to Alisa Blair, a former senior official under Gascón who resigned last week.

Tubbs was not arrested for the assault until 2020. At that time, Gascón had a policy of barring his prosecutors from seeking to transfer juvenile defendants to adult court, so Tubbs was allowed to plead guilty as a juvenile and sentenced to two years in a youth facility. She has since been charged with murder in the death of a homeless man in Kern County.

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Sanna, 34, was the prosecutor assigned to the 2014 assault case and argued vehemently that Tubbs should have been tried as an adult. He criticized Gascón as being soft on crime.

Sanna was rebuked by a judge and a district attorney’s office supervisor for repeatedly referring to Tubbs in a court hearing in December by the name she used when she identified as a male, according to court records and Blair.

After being reminded by a judge that Tubbs identifies as female, Sanna curtly replied, “Tubbs is a violent sex offender,” according to court transcripts.

Blair said Sanna continually “misgendered” Tubbs in the weeks after that court hearing.

“It became clear in the Hannah Tubbs case that his misgendering was intentional and not just a mistake based on the petition having a male name,” Blair said. “The judge admonished him. He did not correct himself.”

Blair said Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Sharon Woo also chastised Sanna for the remarks, to no avail.

Sanna denied Woo reprimanded him and said he believed it was correct to refer to Tubbs by male pronouns. He pointed to leaked jailhouse phone calls that raised questions about whether Tubbs had lied about her gender identity in a bid to receive more favorable treatment or jail placement. After recordings of the calls were leaked in February, even Gascón questioned whether Tubbs truly identified as female.

Smith — who represents several prosecutors who allege they have been demoted or punished for opposing Gascón’s reform policies — expressed concern that Sanna was being singled out for his critical statements about Gascón.

“My concern is they may be using him as an example to frighten other D.A.'s from coming forward and publicly making statements that are negative to Gascón,” Smith said.

It is not clear if the internal investigation into Sanna involves comments he made about the Tubbs case. The union representing rank-and-file prosecutors filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the district attorney’s office on Sanna’s behalf Thursday, arguing the allegations levied against him were so vague that he could not effectively defend himself.

Sanna, who is assigned to juvenile cases in the Antelope Valley Courthouse, has faced other recent accusations of making offensive remarks about defendants.

In an email to D.A. officials, a defense attorney accused him of referring to Black teenagers as “hyenas” and of expressing a desire to strike a teenage defendant. The Times reviewed the email.

Sanna said the “hyena” comment was not racist and was taken out of context. He denied saying anything about hurting a juvenile.

The “hyena” comment was made last October, Sanna said. While playing video in court of three Black defendants assaulting and robbing a person, who was also Black, Sanna said he described the assailants as acting like a “pack of hyenas.” He said multiple people witnessed the conversation and, as far as he knew, no one else questioned his comment as racist.

The comments were made during an informal discussion in the courtroom, according to both Sanna and the email, so there is no transcript.

The defense attorney’s allegations against Sanna are being reviewed by the D.A.'s office, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who requested anonymity to discuss the case candidly. It was not clear if it is part of the ongoing investigation being conducted by the outside law firm or a separate probe.

A spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office said she could not comment on “ongoing personnel investigations.”

Sanna has been highly critical of Gascón and Blair, both in social media and in interviews. On Twitter, he has called his boss a “disgrace” and referred to some of his policies as “bulls—.” He has also claimed that he has tapes confirming Blair intentionally “sabotaged” cases, though he has never produced them.

The investigation into Sanna comes amid of a wave of lawsuits alleging Gascón has used demotions and internal disciplinary measures to punish his critics.

At least eight prosecutors have filed retaliation lawsuits against the district attorney, claiming they were punitively demoted or denied promotions for challenging policies or case decisions. One of those cases has already cost the county a seven-digit sum, after former high-ranking prosecutor Richard Doyle was reassigned following his refusal to dismiss a case on Gascón’s orders. The case was settled for $1 million last year.

“Dist. Atty. Gascón strongly rejects the contention that he uses demotions or internal disciplinary matters to punish his critics. Such actions would be inappropriate and in violation of the law and are not condoned or performed by this office,” said Tiffiny Blacknell, the office’s chief spokeswoman. “Many employees were critical of D.A. Gascón prior to his election and many have continued their criticism throughout his tenure. He has not singled out, demoted or disciplined any employee for their lawful exercise of speech.”


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