By Michele Hanisee
In response to a Public Records Act request for George Gascón’s disciplinary records, the LAPD, rather than indicating that no such records exist, has instead stated that “records responsive to your request remain privileged, confidential, and exempt from disclosure. “Gascón, who has publicly advocated for transparency in the criminal justice system, apparently draws the line at authorizing the release of his own disciplinary records.
His secrecy is nothing new. Gascón has a history of silencing whistleblowers. During his tenure as Chief of San Francisco PD, the SFPD Crime Lab which was under Gascón’s oversight suffered a succession of scandals. One whistleblowing document, authored by the DA’s own expert, was nearly successfully buried by Gascón.
In 2010, following the acquittal of two defendants charged with murder, Gascón, then Chief of SFPD, was informed in writing by one of the defense attorneys of improper methods used by the SFPD DNA analyst who testified in the case. Those improper methods also came to the attention of DNA “guru” Rockne Harmon, who had been hired by then DA, Kamala Harris, as a DNA consultant. Harmon wrote a revealing memorandum documenting the shoddy work and flawed methodology of the DNA analysis being done by Gascón’s Crime Lab.
In early 2010, the Crime Lab was due for its certification audit by the Department of Justice as well as by the American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors Laboratory Accreditation Board (ASCLD/LAB). As the San Francisco Weekly reported, “When Harmon completed his memo at the end of March, he requested that the SFPD share the document with these outside inspectors, in the spirit of transparency, so they could be aware of the lab’s shortcomings.” Gascón never shared the memorandum with the auditors, nor was it disclosed to criminal defendants against whom the lab’s questionable DNA experts were scheduled to testify.
After learning the memo was never shared with defense attorneys and there had not been any follow-up action, Harmon stepped forward to alert the public and the media to the existence of the memo. “There was a deliberate attempt to subvert the inspection review process by the Police Department,” Harmon claimed.
Gascón, meanwhile, was appointed District Attorney of San Francisco by then Mayor, Gavin Newsom. Rather than turn over the memo about the police crime lab, Gascón doubled-down on his attempts to bury it. Gascón first said that the San Francisco City Attorney had determined the memo did not have to be released to the public because it was “work product” of the DA’s office. The City Attorney denied that claim. Gascón’s aides also falsely claimed that the memo did not have to be turned over under a public records act request because it was a private memo sent to an outside party – a claim which Harmon, himself, refuted.
After the City Attorney contradicted Gascón’s statements, he continued to withhold the exculpatory memo from defense attorneys. When a Judge ordered the memo released to a defense attorney for use in an upcoming trial, Gascón appealed the decision. In a blistering statement, the defense attorney said “Justice is supposed to be blind, but our district attorney should not be blinded by politics. His decision to appeal Judge Charles Haines’ clear order to disclose [the memo] is a mistake that will only make the DNA crime lab crisis even worse.” Gascón’s attempt to hide the exculpatory information failed, as a unanimous appeals court ruled that he had to provide the memo to defense attorneys.
Harmon was quoted in the San Francisco Examiner as saying, “I’m not pleased that the full story – the full, true story – is still not out there.” “What happened is wrong, not following up on [the memo] or discussing it or sharing it. It is germane to future legal issues. It’s just something I’m not used to seeing as a prosecutor.”
As District Attorney, Gascón’s attempt to silence whistleblowers in the SFDA’s office did not stop with burying the exculpatory memo that both the author of the memo, and defense attorneys believed should be publicly disclosed. He also attempted to silence investigators at the SFDA’s office who informed federal authorities of Gascón’s apparent violations of federal law. Gascón’s retaliatory actions against that whistleblower cost the City of San Francisco $400,000.
So, while Gascón claims to have a “commitment to accountability and transparency in the criminal justice system,” his actions demonstrate the opposite.
About the author: Michele Hanisee is President of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys, the collective bargaining agent representing nearly 1,000 Deputy District Attorneys who work for the County of Los Angeles.