Thursday, May 16, 2013

Who Should be Next? Orange County’s Home Confinement Debacle Continues to Force Key Resignations

Garnett Ahern, former supervisor of the Orange County Jail’s Home Confinement program, will be retiring officially May 25, 2013 even though disciplinary action is still pending against her and other employees for not informing the court of the multitude of curfew violations one defendant racked up while being monitored by the program – he is now charged with the alleged murder of Alex Zaldivar who was scheduled to testify against him for a previous burglary and home invasion offense.

Ms. Ahern was found by two internal Orange County reports to have violated policy and procedures regarding the operation of the Home Confinement program and co-workers stated she had pressured them to avoid reporting to the court defendants’ violations of program conditions. 

Specifically one report stated, “At best, Ms. Ahern created a level of acceptance in the eyes of her subordinate staff regarding the allowance of offenders to violate . . . at worst she may have even encouraged it.”  Ahern denied the accusations.

Both internal reports found glaring errors in the monitoring of defendants on home confinement to include improperly completed audits and compliance with program conditions.

Many are pointing fingers as to who is to blame.

Last week Commissioner Fred Brummer and Alex Zaldivar’s dad Rafael, both called for Deputy County Administrator and Public Safety Director Linda Weinberg to be fired.

According to one of the internal reports, the jail’s PIO called Weinberg on September 11 or 12, 2012 shortly after Alex Zaldivar’s death and amid sudden media interest regarding the arrest of Bessman Okafor and what appeared to be an ongoing investigation.  Okafor was supposed to be supervised by Home Confinement staff but it was later learned that he had 109 curfew violations that could have had his pretrial release revoked, but a judge was never informed of the curfew violations.  On the night Alex Zaldivar was murdered and two others seriously injured, Okafor was found to have had a lengthy curfew violation that later corresponded to the time of the murder.

According to statements by the jail’s PIO, Weinberg suggested the PIO contact OPD, who had launched a homicide taskforce and were looking at Okafor as a person of interest, regarding the release of any records on Okafor that might impede their investigation. 

Weinberg, per the internal report, asked for no detail or information regarding the substance of the media requests or why they were being made regarding Okafor or of any issues she should be made aware of.  Despite the ongoing media inquiries, Weinberg stated she was not made aware of any issues regarding the Home Confinement program until earlier this year. 

Perhaps she should have asked.

Commissioner Brummer agrees.  He said in an interview with Channel 9 that, “bells should have gone off,” when the jail’s PIO initially called Weinberg regarding the media interest and OPD investigation.

In speaking of Weinberg, Brummer stated, "That person has to be a good manager. Has to ask the questions, listen to concerns; has to make sure the manager of the corrections division is managing."

Okafor's Home Confinement case manager, Meg Hughes, stated in internal reports that, "We were told we were going to 'work with people' and 'keep our numbers' up so violations for drugs or 'stuff like that' we didn't violate them."

Not holding individuals accountable for their behavior never works – not in the criminal justice system or in life in general.  Particularly when millions of taxpayer dollars are being used to fund a supervision program for defendants charged with dangerous and violent offenses such as Okafor.  Individuals charged with monitoring such defendants must also be held accountable for doing their jobs effectively just as the private commercial bail industry is accountable for guaranteeing a defendant's appearance in court.
Too many were found not to be doing so in this case and tragically Alex Zaldivar was murdered.

Leadership starts at the top.  Already the Chief of Corrections and his Deputy have submitted their resignations as well as Ms. Ahern who managed the program.  All have done so immense intense scrutiny of the Home Confinement program and before any formal termination took place.  Disciplinary action will continue with other staff affiliated with the case of Mr. Okafor. 

County Commissioners are wise to continue to ask for answers from high ranking staff and others regarding the truth and functioning of the Home Confinement program and other taxpayer-funded supervision programs.

As taxpayers, we expect nothing less.

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