LOS ANGELES (CN) — Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón may have survived a recall attempt, but behind the scenes his office is still a mess.
In a court filing last month, the DA's office said several members of its staff have experienced "threats of physical harm, experienced physical intimidation, and been relentlessly harassed online" following their testimony in an ongoing civil service proceeding. That harassment, which they said is largely perpetuated online, has been encouraged by social media posts of current and former prosecutors.
Gascón's office asked a superior court judge to place a civil service hearing behind closed doors, an unusual step that the civil service commission has already declined to take. The DA says the step is a necessary one to avoid exposing its own employees to further "harassment and threats of violence."
Gascón, a champion of criminal justice reform, is among the more divisive political figures in California. Immediately upon taking office in December 2020, he barred his prosecutors from seeking the death penalty, trying juveniles as adults, and requesting most sentencing enhancements — special circumstances which increase the amount of prison time convicted felons serve, such as using a gun or being involved in a gang while committing the crime. The directives left much of his staff in a state of near-revolt.
The Association of Deputy District Attorneys (the ADDA), the union which represents LA's rank-and-file prosecutors, filed a lawsuit in late December 2020, weeks after Gascón took office, in an effort to block his reforms. A superior court judge sided with the union, at least in part, and ruled that prosecutors could still ask for certain sentencing enhancements, including one based on California's three strikes law.
The ADDA sued Gascón again in 2021 over six new hires made by the DA, all of whom were from the public defenders office, another county agency. The issue was that the attorneys were being hired with "grade III" and "grade IV" designations, civil service levels that correspond with higher pay. The union cried foul. Those higher grade designations are finite; prosecutors typically must work for a certain amount of time and then take a written test before attaining them. These new hires, the union said, were effectively jumping the queue.
The DA's office said the new staffers were simply retaining their old grades from the public defenders office. A judge told the union to take the matter up with the civil service commission, which began holding public hearings on the matter.
Although the dispute is on its face about pay designations and civil service rules, its subtext runs much deeper. Some of the former public defenders have been accused of harboring left-wing ideologies — for example, believing that the police should be "defunded" or that prisons should be abolished or "reimagined." Fighting the new hires was yet another way for rank-and-file prosecutors to fight Gascón's reforms.
"They were brought in to undermine decades of prosecutorial policy," said Marc Debbaudt, a former prosecutor and former head of the ADDA, in a phone interview. Although the lawsuit "is not technically an objection to their ideology," he said, "that is an undeniable undercurrent of the whole thing."
The six former public defenders say they've experienced harassment ever since they transferred to the DA's office. It has, they say, been particularly bad for two of them, both women — Alisa Blair and Tiffiny Blacknell, who also worked on Gascón's campaign. In 2020, Fox News reported on old social media posts by Blair and Blacknell. A 2019 Facebook post by Blacknell read: "Prison is obsolete. We need to reimagine America without it." Another Blacknell post from 2020 referred to a video of LAPD officers striking protesters with batons, with Blacknell commenting: "Look at these barbarians! #lapd is an occupying army! #DefundPolice." A post by Blair, days after George Floyd was killed by police officers, setting off riots around the country, read: "Burn that shit down. We must destroy in order to rebuild."