A Politically Savvy Prosecutor Is Tanking Orange County’s Justice System
Through Racism, Ego, And Retaliation, Insiders Say
“The guiding light in that office is ‘How is it going to make Todd Spitzer look?’” one former prosecutor said.
OC District Attorney Todd Spitzer is a Professional Criminal hiding with his immunity cloak! The United States’ Most Corrupt District Attorney To Date
The head of one of the largest district attorney’s offices in the US is tanking the local justice system with his ironfisted grip on the office, using fear and retaliation against subordinates and interfering in high-profile cases to boost his public image, according to internal documents and interviews with current and former employees.
Their accounts come as the district attorney for Orange County, California, Todd Spitzer, is facing a growing list of lawsuits and accusations of racism. More than 70 prosecutors — about a quarter of the office’s entire roster of attorneys — have left over the last three years. All of the alleged misconduct, current and former prosecutors and investigators who spoke to BuzzFeed News said, is to protect Spitzer’s public persona and political career, which they said has come at the cost of morale and the reputation of their office. Justice, they said, has come second to generating positive headlines and protecting the personal brand of the county’s top prosecutor.
“Sometimes that aligns with justice, sometimes it doesn’t,” a current prosecutor said.
BuzzFeed News spoke with 11 current and former law enforcement officials from the district attorney’s office who worked under Spitzer, most of whom spoke on condition of anonymity citing a fear of retaliation. Even those no longer working within the prosecutor’s office said they were concerned that speaking out could lead to personal or professional repercussions within the small world of the Southern California legal system. BuzzFeed News also obtained internal memos, emails, confidential investigative reports, and public court records to corroborate many of their accounts. These interviews and documents show that, among other things:
- Spitzer launched internal investigations as payback against prosecutors and investigators who pursued cases that he wanted dropped or that posed a threat of revealing comments or decisions that he wanted hidden, according to three officials with direct knowledge.
- In spite of vowing to step back to protect the prosecution’s independence, Spitzer “shopped around” for a prosecutor who’d align with his personal view in the high-profile case of Grant Robicheaux, a wealthy surgeon accused of raping multiple women, according to two sources. At least one prosecutor refused to take it on because they felt Spitzer wanted charges reduced or dropped.
- Spitzer brought up race multiple times as he made decisions on criminal prosecutions and used Black prosecutors as the face of the office to deflect criticism of his record, former prosecutors said in interviews and documents.
- Two supervisors and an outside investigator have found the district attorney “not credible” when he was questioned in two separate investigations, according to reports obtained by BuzzFeed News. In one instance, Spitzer lied to his own homicide investigator, possibly obstructing justice and tainting two criminal cases, after having an “improper” conversation with the father of a young boy killed in a mass shooting, one former high-ranking prosecutor said in a legal claim.
- Though he touted himself as a victims advocate, some alleged victims have told BuzzFeed News they were publicly discredited, abandoned by Spitzer’s office, and verbally attacked by him behind closed doors.
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Spitzer denied using the prosecutor’s office for his political benefit, interfering in criminal cases, and taking action to tip the outcome of investigations and trials to his liking. Instead, he accused critics of “coordinat[ing] efforts to embarrass me and deter me from my efforts.”
“This is no coincidence and the motive is clear,” Spitzer said in the statement. “Nothing will deter me from continuing my mission to clean up the public corruption in the Orange County District Attorney’s Office and safeguard the criminal justice system.”
He also denied an atmosphere of fear and retaliation in the prosecutor’s office, saying that incidents of discipline were meant to ferret out a “win-at-all-costs” mentality from a previous administration.
“Accountability cannot be confused for retaliation,” he said.
The district attorney was also critical of BuzzFeed News’ use of anonymous sources for this article, suggesting they were disgruntled employees looking for a payout.
“It is disingenuous to allow people speaking under the condition of anonymity to make allegations of this nature, especially when many of them have a vested financial interest in painting the office and the DA in the worst possible light,” he said in the statement. “There has not been a single sustained allegation of retaliation by the DA and to refuse to identify sources while they are allowed unfettered ability to make unsubstantiated and factually inaccurate statements is not only unfair, it is a disservice to the public we serve and the work that we do on a daily basis to pursue justice and give the voiceless a voice.”
Yet that daily work is now threatened by what insiders have called a mass exodus from the office. The office maintains a roster of about 300 attorneys on staff, and the district attorney’s office confirmed 73 prosecutors have left over a period of three years. (Fourteen returned to do part-time work on contract, the district attorney’s office added.)
But the result, sources said, has been a “brain drain” from the Orange County district attorney’s office of mid- and high-level prosecutors. Today, several officials said, prosecutors with less experience are handling bigger caseloads and more complicated cases than they would have before.
“Everybody is looking for an exit strategy because it’s just a rotten place to work,” one former prosecutor said. “That’s 100% Todd Spitzer’s fault.”
The district attorney’s office disputed the number of departures and, despite concerns from multiple supervisors and line prosecutors about attrition, said their rate was lower than other county agencies. Officials also pointed to a county program launched in 2020 that offered up to $100,000 in incentives for long-term employees to retire.
After being contacted for this story, a spokesperson for the district attorney’s office asked prosecutors to reach out to BuzzFeed News to talk about their experiences.
Four people — including one who refused to identify themself and one person who declined to be named in this article, saying they were concerned they’d face blowback from coworkers for speaking positively about their boss — spoke highly of Spitzer and his handling of multiple scandals that have plagued the office in recent years. They also described what they said was a divided office, affected by the politics of an upcoming election.
“It is a toxic environment in the sense that if you’re pro-Todd [Spitzer], you can’t say that openly in the office because so many people are openly against him,” Jeri Katheryne Neff, a prosecutor who was asked to contact BuzzFeed News.
The recent headlines, lawsuits, and allegations raised against Spitzer have fractured the prosecution office, said Beth Costello, a senior assistant district attorney who was also asked to contact BuzzFeed News.
“If I say something good and my name is attached to it, then the other 50% of the office that’s disgruntled will have an ax to grind,” she said.
She and the others praised Spitzer for initiatives he’s launched since taking office, such as expanding the mental health and recidivism unit, as well as the veterans treatment court, which looks at providing additional services and support in select cases. He’s also directed more resources to address juvenile justice, they said.
“At the end of the day, he has a huge heart and cares about his office and its employees,” Costello said.
A former member of the California State Assembly and Orange County Board of Supervisors, Spitzer took over the district attorney’s office in 2019 after a contentious campaign against a long-serving incumbent. For his new employees, it was no surprise that Spitzer, a Republican in a county that had for decades been home to wealthy and influential Republicans, would enter the office with political aspirations. So when he took office, some staff members expected that he’d use it to advance his public profile. What they didn’t expect was to what extent.
“The question [for prosecutors] should be what is right, what is just, and what does the law say, and what does the conscience say, but the guiding light in that office is ‘How is it going to make Todd Spitzer look?’” one former prosecutor said, adding that the office mantra has made prosecutors feel deflated. “You feel dirty and you need to take a shower.”
For example, two former prosecutors said Spitzer’s habit of quickly showing up in front of TV cameras, at times before knowing all the facts, was known among colleagues as his “Ready, fire, aim!” policy.
The district attorney’s office is political by nature, but prosecutors say it became more acute quickly after Spitzer was elected. Press conferences that had typically only drawn local reporters morphed into appearances on Fox News, in which Spitzer would stress his conservative, pro–law enforcement, and anti-“woke” credentials.
“I don’t want to say that politics never got involved before, but it got worse,” another former prosecutor said. “There was also this sense that if he could score political points, then he’ll do that.”
A spokesperson for Spitzer argued his media appearances have helped him pursue public safety.
“District Attorney Spitzer has made personal appearances on cases in which the only way to protect the public is to put pressure on the bench,” his office said. “District Attorneys across the nation are under attack as pro-criminals, anti-public safety activities are trying to make prosecutors scared to do their jobs and hold criminals accountable.”
Tucker was fired, and Spitzer has publicly denied his accusations, said the original investigation was a conflict of interest, and referred to him as a “dirty cop.” But an arbitrator decided Tucker was wrongfully terminated. He’s since filed a lawsuit against the county, claiming California whistleblower protections were violated. Spitzer’s office declined to comment to BuzzFeed News on Tucker’s allegations, citing the ongoing litigation. Attorneys for Orange County have denied all of Tucker’s claims in court documents.
“The lesson with Damon was, if you mess with Todd, he’s going to take away your livelihood,” Keith Bruno, an attorney representing Tucker, told BuzzFeed News.
Even after Tucker got his job back, retaliation has continued, Bruno said. Once assigned to lead and supervise complicated major fraud cases, Tucker is now assigned to supervise misdemeanors from a “broom closet” office, Bruno said.
More recent claims of retaliation have come from how Spitzer responded to allegations of sexual harassment from prosecutors against a supervisor, Gary LoGalbo, who had been best man at his wedding. An investigation conducted by an outside law firm determined Spitzer tried to have one of the women disciplined, accusing her of lying in an email where she detailed allegations that she had been sexually harassed. The investigation found that Spitzer did not retaliate against her because two supervisors refused to follow Spitzer’s request that she be written up.
Spitzer denied asking that the woman be written up in her evaluation, investigators noted, but of the 29 people who were interviewed for the investigation into the sexual harassment claims, only Spitzer and his spokesperson, Kimberly Edds, were found by investigators to have been “not credible.”
In response to the sexual harassment claims, Spitzer has defended his actions, saying he acted as soon as allegations were raised, and he’s also denounced his former friend.
Costello, one of the prosecutors who spoke to BuzzFeed News at the request of the DA’s office, said she didn’t believe that Spitzer tried to have one of the women disciplined.
“I don’t believe that for a second,” she said. “I think that Todd is supportive of the women who came forward.”
Costello added she hasn’t read many of the claims or lawsuits that have been filed against Spitzer or the county but dismissed them as a common occurrence in any large agency.
“There’s bound to be a handful of people who are disgruntled about something,” she said.
Neff, who also reached out at the direction of the DA’s office, also questioned the motivations of the women in the case, saying those who have filed suit against the county are incentivized by the money of a potential settlement or judgment in their favor.
“Anyone who is suing and putting their story in a lawsuit, they have built a financial incentive,” Neff said. “I’m not saying these women lied about their experiences, but they’re not able to applaud Todd for the way they handled it because that’s part of the lawsuit, that the county failed to intervene.”
Neff told BuzzFeed News that in general, “most of the women laughed about what happened.”
She added her account has generated tension in the office.
“They know that eventually I’m going to hurt their lawsuits because I went through it,” she said. “I’m just going to testify to the truth and say that they just laughed about it, most of them.”
Others who worked in the DA’s office said the allegations raise larger issues, not just on how Spitzer handled the claims of sexual harassment, but how he responded to victims and investigations that found his account of events to be “not credible.”
“Fundamentally, Todd [Spitzer] is a victim advocate until it’s politically inconvenient for him,” said Matt Murphy, a former prosecutor who now represents five former district attorney employees who have filed claims of sexual harassment and racial discrimination. He also represents five alleged victims of sexual assault who claim Spitzer’s office bungled the prosecution of their alleged attacker.
“Sustained allegations of sexual harassment, religious discrimination, and abusive conduct are not part of doing business at the district attorney’s office,” Murphy told BuzzFeed News. “Neither are findings that the elected DA was dishonest during his interview.”
Murphy declined to go into detail about his experience at the DA’s office under Spitzer, saying he left on good terms.
“There are still wonderful people that work there, but this whole situation is awful,” he said.
Two former high-ranking officials have publicly clashed with Spitzer after they took issue with how he brought race into prosecutions. The prosecutors, according to court records and internal memos, said they refused to execute Spitzer’s “race based practices” and argued that his comments and actions would have to be disclosed to the court.
BuzzFeed News previously reported that Spitzer asked about a Black murder suspect’s history of dating white women while considering seeking the death penalty, according to internal memos. When a prosecutor called the question “irrelevant,” Spitzer persisted, saying he “knows many black people who get themselves out of their bad circumstances and bad situations by only dating ‘white women,’” according to one internal memo. Spitzer later said he had been misquoted and an email corrected the comments to say he knew some Black men who dated white women “to enhance their status.” A police lieutenant involved with the murder investigation, an attorney for the victim’s family, and a senior assistant district attorney have called out the comments as racist and fear they could impact the prosecution of the case, which is ongoing.
After initially doubling down on his statement — he told BuzzFeed News that defense attorneys had first brought up race in the case and he was concerned about “cross racial identification” — Spitzer called his comment “inartful” and “insensitive” in an interview with the Los Angeles Times on Feb. 23.
Two days later, questions of sensitivity again came up when video resurfaced of him repeatedly using the n-word during a meeting with the Iranian American Bar Association. In the November 2019 video, Spitzer is heard describing two alleged hate crimes in 2018, repeating the slurs that were said to the victims.
“There are no kids here, so I’m good, I guess,” Spitzer told attendees seated around banquet tables with a smile before relaying what was said in one of the incidents: “Hey, you fucking nigger, I’m going to drop your baby because niggers shouldn’t have babies.”
In a statement, Spitzer defended his use of the word.
“Hate is ugly and the words haters use and the violence they commit is even uglier,” he said in a statement. “It is hard to hear and it is hard to look at, but unless we confront it head on, hate will continue to fester and people of color will continue to suffer at the hands of haters.”
Spitzer also tried to leverage Black prosecutors within his office, according to Tracy Miller, who served as a deputy district attorney for almost 25 years. Miller, who was at one time the most senior woman prosecutor in the office, has filed a claim against Orange County, a precursor to a lawsuit, outlining what she described as a range of misconduct.
Spitzer’s office called the allegations “patently false” in a statement.
In perhaps her most shocking allegation, Miller said she believed Spitzer may have obstructed justice in the prosecution of Aminadab Gaxiola Gonzalez, who is accused of killing four people, including a 9-year-old boy, at an office complex last year in the city of Orange.
On Nov. 15, according to Miller’s claim, Spitzer told top officials at the DA’s office during an executive meeting that he’d had a conversation with Rafael Farias, father of the 9-year-old victim. But Farias, who was facing his own criminal charges in an unrelated auto theft case, didn’t have his lawyer present. Prosecutors, including Miller, pointed out that made Spitzer’s conversation improper, particularly if he discussed any “favorable treatment” Farias might receive in his criminal case.
Spitzer’s office also told BuzzFeed News the district attorney took the call from the 9-year-old boy’s father, but that when he learned about the pending criminal case, Spitzer said he could only speak to the man’s attorney.
According to a report of the incident obtained by BuzzFeed News, an investigator in Spitzer’s office agreed with Miller, calling the district attorney’s version of events when he was interviewed “different” than when he had first disclosed details of the phone call in the executive meeting. According to the Jan. 6 report, a supervisor believed Spitzer had not provided all the relevant information prosecutors were legally obligated to provide defense attorneys. Spitzer, meanwhile, called his investigator’s report “misleading” in his Jan. 31 memo.
“This report implies there was something nefarious,” he wrote. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
Miller wanted her concerns to go to the court, including defense attorneys, to try to preserve a fair trial for both Farias and Gonzalez. But on Jan. 4, Miller says, Spitzer ordered that the release of what she’d told the auto theft investigator be delayed.
“That order had the intended effect of discrediting Miller’s report and soiling her reputation,” the claim states.
Spitzer’s office said that delay was ordered so that Miller’s allegations could be “corrected” by Spitzer’s memo.
“Spitzer was unwilling to allow the investigator’s misleading report to be submitted without his memo clarifying the facts and correcting misstatements,” the statement read. “Clearly this is Miller’s attempt to make her government claim more sensational.”
She’d already faced pushback when she spoke up for more junior women in the office facing sexual harassment, been phased out of key decision-making, and endured being yelled at by Spitzer in front of her colleagues, according to her claim. The environment was so toxic, Miller alleges, that she was forced to take an early retirement this year.
Spitzer rejected Miller’s claims of retaliation and pointed out in a statement that Miller had voluntarily retired.
Other law enforcement officials described similar instances of retaliation and what they said was an openly hostile work environment.
“Anybody that speaks out against Todd [Spitzer] and hurts the brand, in his mind, is fair game,” one prosecutor told BuzzFeed News. “That man is vindictive, and you can feel it.”
“The deputy DAs in the office have come to learn that Todd Spitzer has two faces, and you never know which one you’re going to see,” one former prosecutor said. “He has power over people’s careers in that office, and they basically live and work in fear that they’re going to see the bad side.”
For several officials who spoke to BuzzFeed News, one of the watershed moments was the handling of rape charges that had been levied against Newport Beach surgeon Grant Robicheaux and his girlfriend, Cerissa Riley.
The case had already become the center of a political brawl between Spitzer and his predecessor, Tony Rackauckas, as they faced off in a contentious election campaign. Spitzer had accused Rackauckas of using the case to gain media attention just before the election, and Rackauckas accused Spitzer of releasing court records containing victims’ personal information.
After Spitzer won the election, he launched what he described as a top-to-bottom review of the criminal investigation into Robicheaux and Riley, saying the case had been tainted by his predecessor.
The case was reassigned to two new prosecutors, but some current and former officials who spoke to BuzzFeed News said the decision made no sense. The original prosecutor, Jennifer Walker, was highly regarded for her experience in complicated sex crime cases. The newly assigned prosecutors, officials said, didn’t have a similar experience. One former prosecutor described the decision as the equivalent of “benching Kobe Bryant during the finals.”
Spitzer’s office pushed back against this characterization of the reassignment, calling it an “outrageous claim.”
“Our prosecutors assigned to this case are all outstanding, dedicated attorneys,” his office said in a statement. “Shame on the dissidents who only believe the office was better off with them in it.”
Some prosecutors in the office were also concerned because of Spitzer’s prior political involvement in the case, including his acknowledgment that he was friends with at least one of the defense attorneys.
Spitzer had appealed to the California attorney general’s office, asking them to take the case over if they found a conflict of interest, but Orange County prosecutors were cleared to go ahead with the case. Spitzer then announced what he said would be a “top to bottom” review of the investigations.
Attacking the credibility of the women had a chilling effect throughout the county.
“They were getting calls from victims asking if their cases would be thrown out, too,” one former prosecutor said.
Spitzer’s office said they were unaware of any calls from concerned victims, but that the results of the review “also shocked Spitzer and the action he was forced to take to dismiss all charges was extremely difficult.”
From the very start, prosecutors and investigators in the department understood that Spitzer was looking to drop charges in the case and had a predetermined outcome in mind for the review, even as he claimed it would be focused on the evidence, three officials told BuzzFeed News. According to two sources, Spitzer had “shopped around” for a prosecutor to take over the criminal case.
“He went through a couple of DAs that said, ‘We’re not going to play this game,’” one investigator told BuzzFeed News.
Eventually, one prosecutor in the sexual assault unit was approached but they bowed out, two officials said.
“They were aware that Todd wanted the case dropped or reduced,” one of them said.
Spitzer’s office denied these claims, saying the sexual assault unit prosecutor was taken off due to medical reasons, and added other prosecutors in the office, including the head of the sexual assault unit and Spitzer’s executive team, reviewed the report and agreed to drop all charges.
As the case was being reviewed, Spitzer once again injected himself in the supposedly independent investigation. In public, Spitzer claimed he’d stepped back because he “personally had a stake in this case.” But after receiving an early copy of the review, Spitzer called one of the newly assigned prosecutors and was “dictating to the attorney what he wanted included in the report,” two officials with direct knowledge said.
Spitzer’s office called the allegation “patently false” and also pointed to the prosecutors’ court filings, in which they stated that they were not interfered with or had any direction to come up with a predetermined outcome.
“In fact, they attested that if they were directed to prosecute the case they would not,” the statement read.
Shortly afterward, Spitzer also placed investigator Jennifer Kearns, who first pieced together that multiple women had reported being sexually assaulted by Robicheaux, on administrative leave. Spitzer accused her of being a “rogue” investigator and filing “misleading” reports on the case, and trying to interject during the review of the case.
A personnel investigation was launched against Kearns, but three officials told BuzzFeed News it was done so with a predetermined outcome to try to get her fired. Even as Spitzer was working to drop charges, one official said Kearns continued to work on the investigation.
“She was a bulldog, and he didn’t want that,” the official said.
She had become so ostracized in the office, one former prosecutor said, that when colleagues tried to pass around a card for people to sign to “wish her well,” most prosecutors refused. It wasn’t that Kearns didn’t have the support of her colleagues, they said, but that they were afraid Spitzer would read the names on the card and target them too. Spitzer disputed this claim.
Kearns was disciplined for filing “incomplete” reports, according to internal records, but the internal investigation cleared her of the most serious allegations. She was allowed to return to work and went on to file a lawsuit against Spitzer, claiming he “colluded with the defense while engaging in a concerted campaign to undermine the prosecution, discredit the victims, and ultimately destroy the criminal case.”
In 2008, Spitzer managed the campaign to pass Marsy’s Law, the victim bill of rights that has gone on to inspire legislation across the US to require that victims of crime be notified about court hearings and given the opportunity to be heard during the proceedings. But despite his public positioning as a victims’ rights advocate, current and former officials said that behind closed doors, accusers have also come under fire if Spitzer’s political image is on the line.
Christy Clark’s husband, Scott Clark, was killed on Jan. 25, 2017. A fifth-grade teacher and triathlete, Clark had been out running when he was struck during an alleged road-rage crash in Laguna Niguel. One driver made a right-hand turn, allegedly striking a second driver, who then swerved into the crosswalk, hitting Scott.
Charges had been initially filed against one of the drivers by the previous district attorney, but Spitzer’s office would later decide to drop them after three expert reviews of the crash determined “the wrong person had been arrested,” Spitzer’s office said in a statement. “As a result the very difficult decision was made to dismiss the charges.”
When a meeting was set up with Spitzer on Jan. 13, 2020, a year after the district attorney took office and nearly three years after her husband’s death, she thought she would at least get some answers.
“Before I even sat down, he said to me, his first words to me were, ‘I have never been so vilified in my political career,’” Clark said. “I was kind of taken aback. I hadn’t even sat in my seat.”
She asked if Spitzer was referring to her Facebook page, which had generated criticism of his office.
Spitzer then pointed to four framed awards that had been laid out on the conference room table ahead of the meeting, Clark said.
“He was standing over them, and he pointed to each one of them and described them to me, saying, ‘Do you know what these are for?’”
Clark said she tuned out after Spitzer pointed out his prosecutor of the year award.
“He was so angry, and it was just so very weird,” she said. “I didn’t fight him. I just let him blather. I didn’t get angry. I knew he had a reputation of being vindictive. I wasn’t going to win with him, and I just let him talk.”
Spitzer’s office confirmed the meeting with Clark.
“We met and Spitzer did his best to make sure she knew he was a victim advocate and was doing everything he could to file the case against the guilty party,” the DA’s office said in a statement.
On Feb. 25, Spitzer once again was defending his track record, this time against the firestorm of allegations he’s faced in recent days.
Speaking to more than 100 employees in the law library of his office’s Santa Ana headquarters, the district attorney teared up and his voice cracked at times, insiders told BuzzFeed News, but he also remained defiant. In particular, Spitzer questioned the motives of the prosecutor who had drafted the memo on Spitzer’s comments that Black men dated white women “to enhance their status.”
But hours before Friday’s meeting, a court motion and emails between him and Baytieh had leaked and were now being passed around the close-knit circle of prosecutors. The emails showed Baytieh had reminded Spitzer about his concerns over the comments, and the legal implications of them, less than one month after they were made. In spite of Spitzer’s arguments, a room filled with prosecutors had potential evidence contradicting their boss’s claim.
Attorneys shot knowing glances at each other, two prosecutors said, then quickly turned their eyes back to Spitzer. Though they’d gathered in the law library, there were no books in sight — just a press conference–ready stage, and Todd Spitzer standing on it.