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Head of OC’s law enforcement watchdog agency to leave for Los Angeles DWP

Civil rights attorney Sergio Perez is leaving his job directing Orange County’s law enforcement watchdog agency, the Office of Independent Review, to become the first inspector general for Los Angeles’ troubled Department of Water and Power.

Perez’s departure next month leaves a large gap at the office charged with keeping honest Orange County’s law enforcement agencies, hobbled in recent years by scandals over the use of jailhouse informants, the mishandling of evidence and the recording of confidential conversations between jail inmates and their attorneys.

Perez is known for his aggressiveness and tough questioning of officials at the Sheriff’s Department, District Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office, Probation Department and social services agency.

Wanted: Tenacious successor

In an interview, Perez said he hopes his replacement will be equally tenacious in protecting the rights of Orange County residents.

“It’s really easy to hire folks in these oversight positions who are very happy to sit on their hands and collect a paycheck, to be seen and not heard,” Perez said. Under his leadership, he said, “I am secure in the fact the OIR always called things objectively.”

Before Perez’s arrival in 2020, the county’s Office of Independent Review was considered by many to be window-dressing, an office that served a political purpose but did nothing substantial. Before he was hired, the office had been dormant for two years  while county supervisors mulled whether to shut it down altogether.

Stinging rebuke on use of force

Perez took the reins and started asking the hard questions. Under his watch, the OIR last summer for the first time issued a stinging rebuke of the sheriff’s rules for using force. It was the strongest action by the OIR since it was formed in 2008 in response to the stomping death of an inmate at Theo Lacy jail by other inmates, while a deputy watched television in the guard station.

Perez’s use-of-force report concluded the sheriff’s policies were generally unclear, confusing, incorrect and without empathy, endangering deputies and the public alike.

Sheriff Don Barnes responded that the review lacked “substance and useful recommendations.”

The department, however, made changes to its use-of-force policy, report writing and other procedures following the OIR’s report. Included was a doubling down on its policy that use-of-force violations be forwarded to internal affairs for investigation.

In a statement this week on Perez’s departure, Barnes said, “I wish Sergio the best in his future endeavors. The Sheriff’s Department will continue to cooperate with the OIR in our shared mission of providing exceptional public safety and sound policy to the residents of Orange County.”

Small office

Perez leaves behind a small office with one chief of investigations and approval to hire two new lawyers. At his new job, Perez will lead as many as 24 employees in rooting out malfeasance at the DWP. The water department has been hit by scandal after scandal involving bribery and corruption at its highest levels.

In Orange County, the future of the OIR is in the hands of the Board of Supervisors.

One of those supervisors, Don Wagner, said he favors a national search to hire someone who is tenacious and active like Perez has been. But Wagner added that the candidate should recognize that “by and large, these agencies are solidly run but need improving.”

“Handled right, the OIR isn’t there to play gotcha,” he said. “It is a tool for management to make some improvements.”

Endemic problems?

Wagner said the problems typically aren’t endemic, but rather are the product of some “bad apples.”

Supervisor Katrina Foley, however, said she expects the office to look for problems that are endemic.

“My expectation is this is an independent office. The person is supposed to be reviewing systemic issues,” Foley said. “The challenge of this position is you’re going to be auditing and reviewing situations that are controversial. By its own nature, it comes with a little pushback.”

Lawrence Rosenthal, a professor at the Fowler School of Law at Chapman University in Orange, said the existence of bad apples shows there is indeed something wrong with the system.

“If you’re in an office in which you screw something up and there are no consequences, you can hardly be surprised when bad apples emerge,” Rosenthal said. “Unless you’re willing to ask the question, ‘Are there systemic situations that the bad apples respond to?’ you are missing the most important part of the story.”

Educated at Yale, Perez came to Orange County after a stint as the director of enforcement for the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission. He also worked as a civil rights trial attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice.

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