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Court filing reveals turmoil within LA prosecutor’s office

Some of the former public defenders hired by the reform-minded district attorney say they've been the subject of vitriolic online harassment stoked by current and former prosecutors.

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."

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In an email, Blacknell said, "After that segment aired I was subjected to online attacks both in the comments but also in my direct message mailbox. These attacks referenced sexual violence against me and contained racism and misogyny. Each time I have been the subject of a Fox News segment, the attacks have increased."

A spokesman from the DA's office added in an email: "Vitriolic social media comments about Mrs. Blacknell are promoting sexual violence including that she would enjoy being gang-raped."

Blair recently left the DA's office "due, in part, to ongoing harassment," according to a court filing. Blacknell has held a variety of positions in Gascón's office; her current title is "special adviser."

The harassment has increased since Blacknell and the others joined the DA's office. Blacknell said one of the figures stoking that harassment is Debbaudt. Now retired, Debbaudt is a prodigious Facebook poster, with Gascón the main subject of his ire. Some of Debbaudt's posts have targeted Blacknell. Some have included photos from Blacknell's own social media account (including one of her in a swimsuit and another with her children), without her permission, along with a comment by Debbaudt.

"He has spread misinformation about me on numerous occasions," Blacknell said in an email. "He has announced where and when I am scheduled to appear at a public event on more than one occasion resulting in me canceling my appearances. He has posted my salary and my employee ID number for some unknown reason. His audience is openly hostile to me and he feeds them a steady diet of vitriol at my expense."

She added: "I’ve also been targeted by a current deputy DA. I cannot comment further on this harassment as it is a subject of a current investigation."

Debbaudt said he finds that claim "laughable."

"I posted information they had previously posted on their Facebook page on my Facebook page," said Debbaudt. "They claim that was harassing to them."

According to the court filing which asked a judge to seal the civil service proceeding, Blacknell recently filed a declaration that within hours Debbaudt had posted to Facebook. "The material Mr. Debbaudt posted included photos of Ms. Blacknell’s children," the court filing said. "Several comments flowed from Mr. Debbaudt’s post which further incited physical danger and included physical threats."

The filing also said Debbaudt "disrupted the proceedings during a witness examination, in order to make an inappropriate inquiry of the witness." Debbaudt says this was a mistake — that he was listening to the hearing on his phone in the car, and his wife accidentally unmuted the phone while Debbaudt was talking.

"That was the interjection," Debbaudt said. "I’m sorry I did it. They tried to make it as big a deal as it could."

A hearing on Gascón's request to move the civil service hearing behind closed doors has not yet been scheduled.

Despite fervent opposition from many of his own prosecutors, as well as a considerable section of the city concerned about crime and homelessness, multiple efforts to recall Gascón have failed in rather embarrassing fashion. A first attempt gave up halfway through amid infighting between various organizers. The second attempt came up about 46,000 signatures short, despite spending more than $8 million.

Although Gascón remains a divisive figure in LA politics, he has said he plans to run for reelection. 

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