Judge Thomas Goethals speaks to an attorney in his courtroom in superior court in Santa Ana. ///ADDITIONAL INFORMATION:   JudgeGoethal – 06/19/15 – MARK RIGHTMIRE, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER

Judge Thomas Goethals handed the case to the California Attorney General’s Office, which is appealing on the grounds that the sheriff’s department — which oversees the jails and snitches — committed misconduct, not the district attorney’s office. (Mark Rightmire / File Photo)

By Tony Saavedra / Staff Writer
July 22, 2015
Updated July 23, 2015 10:32 a.m.

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The U.S. Department of Justice is looking at the jailhouse informant scandal in Orange County, a move that could lead to a federal takeover of the District Attorney’s Office.

In an email obtained Wednesday by the Register, Department of Justice attorney Christopher Cheng is quoted telling County of Orange lawyer Nicole Sims that he is “keeping an eye” on repeated allegations that local prosecutors and investigators are illegally using informants held in jails run by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

The email, sent by Sims’ boss, Leon Page, to county supervisors as a recap of the July 16 conversation, also shows that federal officials are monitoring how the county plans to rebuild a civilian office that oversees the Sheriff’s Department.

Federal civil rights officials have been investigating Orange County’s jail system since December 2008, after an inmate was killed by other prisoners while a nearby guard watched “Cops” on television.

According to the email, Cheng said the Department of Justice is not ready to close the book on that investigation. Instead, the DOJ will wait to see how the county continues to monitor the Sheriff’s Department and how the jailhouse informant scandal involving Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas plays out.

“It is very important to the DOJ that there be oversight of the Sheriff’s Department,” Sims said in an email to her bosses, which was relayed to county supervisors the same day.

As far as allegations that police and prosecutors are illegally using jailhouse informants, Cheng said “the DOJ is keeping an eye on it to see how it develops,” according to the email.

Cheng could not be reached for comment.

The stakes for local law enforcement could be high.

By law, the DOJ can seize control of local law agencies if a court rules that the those agencies can’t or won’t make legally required changes. In 1978, the federal court issued injunctions against the Orange County jail system because of overcrowding and poor treatment of inmates. In 2000, the DOJ took over the Los Angeles Police Department after finding illegal activities in the department’s Rampart Division.

Legal experts want a formal federal investigation into allegations that Orange County prosecutors, the Sheriff’s Department and some local police agencies are using snitches on defendants who have already retained lawyers and invoked their right not to talk. Prosecutors also are accused by defense attorneys of repeatedly failing to hand over evidence gleaned from those informants.

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