Felony charges against Gascón's top advisor spark confusion, criticism in L.A. D.A.'s office

LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 17: District Attorney George Gascón to speaks at Justice Reform Rally after surviving a second recall campaign on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
Dist. Atty. George Gascón speaks at a 2022 rally in Los Angeles. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

When one of Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón's top advisors was charged with 11 felonies last month, his critics were quick to pounce.

Though Gascón himself has not been charged with any wrongdoing, the case against Assistant Dist. Atty. Diana Teran has set off the latest in a seemingly endless wave of controversies for the embattled progressive as he seeks a second term.

Teran is accused of improperly downloading confidential police records in 2018 — while she was the constitutional policing advisor to the L.A. County Sheriff's Department — and then making improper use of that data when she joined the D.A.'s office in 2021.

Read more: High-ranking L.A. prosecutor booked on felony charges, released on $50,000 bond

The D.A.'s detractors have described the charges as further evidence of Gascón's mismanagement of the nation's largest prosecutor's office, arguing Teran was one of many outside hires he should not have made. Gascón's November election opponent, Nathan Hochman, pointed to the charges as an indictment of Gascón's decision-making and questioned if the D.A. "blessed" the alleged misconduct.

Gascón's allies and some legal experts, however, have cried foul, questioning whether California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta overstepped and is effectively punishing Teran for carrying out the D.A.'s police accountability agenda.

State prosecutors have not specified what documents Teran allegedly took or what she did with them, leaving an information vacuum. Teran is not due in court until July, and the affidavit that would lay out more about her alleged actions was filed under seal, meaning clarity on the charges is not imminent.

Teran's defense attorney, James Spertus, said his client is being prosecuted for uploading the information to a database of law enforcement officers whose credibility could be called into question at trial. The database is commonly referred to as a "Brady List" in reference to a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision.

The documents used, Spertus told The Times, either stem from cases in which deputies appealed disciplinary findings in public civil lawsuits, or were made public through California's landmark police transparency law, SB 1421, in 2019.

Ex-Sheriff Alex Villanueva paints a much more nefarious picture. After Teran was charged last month, Villanueva claimed on social media that she had downloaded "about 2400 personnel files," largely for the purposes of collecting dirt on him and his allies in the months before his election in 2018. Villanueva said taking those records would have been illegal unless she had the permission of then-Sheriff Jim McDonnell, who declined to comment when reached by The Times.

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A few months after Villanueva took office and found out about the "massive data breach," he said, several top department officials met with the FBI and the state attorney general's office to convey their concerns.

One of the people at that meeting in early 2019 was Villanueva's former chief of staff, Larry Del Mese, according to a transcript of testimony in an unrelated case, which showed discussion of allegations that more than a dozen people improperly downloaded files about Villanueva and several of his supporters.

Del Mese testified that federal and state authorities told the Sheriff's Department they weren't interested in pursuing the matter. It remains unclear whether the current charges involve those same files, as the criminal complaint against Teran does not identify the deputies whose record she allegedly used.

The case is a headache Gascón does not need as he gears up for a tough re-election fight against Hochman. And with the charges coming from Bonta, a fellow progressive elected on a similar reform platform, Gascón can't easily parry criticisms as sour grapes from conservatives.

Teran had oversight of some of the office's most complex cases, including the Justice Systems Integrity Division, which prosecutes law enforcement officers.

Teran is no longer the "assistant district attorney over ethics and integrity operations," according to district attorney's office spokeswoman Venusse Dunn, who declined to comment further on Teran's job status.

A high-ranking district attorney's office source said Teran has been placed on administrative leave. The source spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss a confidential personnel matter.

Calls for an investigation into the cases Teran handled are mounting.

"Now that Teran is facing prison time, what steps has or will the district attorney take to ensure that her alleged wrongdoing did not infect more matters than those referenced in the A.G.’s complaint?" wrote Ryan Ehrlich, vice president of the union that represents rank-and-file prosecutors, in an open letter. "Will there be a top-to-bottom review of her work? Will that review be internal or external? Who will run it?"

It does not appear any such review is coming. Dunn said there is "no indication that the D.A.’s discovery compliance system was compromised nor issues with any filing decision."

Dunn also said Teran does not have final say on any charging decisions.

Even so, Teran is influential in reviews of cases involving sheriff's deputies. A civil lawsuit filed last year accuses her of delaying the announcement of a decision not to prosecute several deputies because it might have affected Villanueva's failed 2022 reelection campaign. Teran has not commented on the suit, which is pending.

In an interview, Hochman wondered if Gascón hired Teran because he knew she had access to such materials.

“Did he bring her on to explicitly take advantage of the illegal downloads that she had already done in the Sheriff’s Department?” Hochman asked, acknowledging he had no direct knowledge or evidence to support that suggestion. “It's either an indictment of his judgment, that he would be willing to risk bringing someone like this on and putting them in charge of police prosecutions … or perhaps it means he’s willing to double down and bless or condone these illegal acts as well.”

Read more: George Gascón survived the primary. Can Nathan Hochman unseat him as D.A.?

Gascón's chief of staff, Tiffiny Blacknell, dismissed Hochman's assertion, saying Teran was hired for her "unparalleled expertise in the complicated processes of law enforcement transparency, to which she's dedicated her career and is among the best at what she does."

Hochman went on to argue that the office needs to review any case where Teran could "have tainted the D.A.’s review process." Her actions, he said, could have also affected cases in which the "Brady material" she allegedly brought over was used to impeach a deputy's testimony at trial.

Though Hochman and other Gascón critics have been quick to blast Teran, legal experts have approached Bonta's filing decision with skepticism.

"It's really hard to know whether this is legitimate or not without learning more details," said Jonathan Abel, an expert on Brady material and associate professor at the University of California College of the Law in San Francisco. "One of the issues you’re seeing is that there’s so much data out there these days and a lot of people have access to it and there can really be confusing rules about sharing it. It’s very possible that someone can make a mistake."

Hanni Fakhoury, a San Francisco defense attorney with a background in computer crimes, said the charge against Teran is California's analog to the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Based on the few facts Bonta's office has made public, Fakhoury described the filing as "weird" and making use of a "novel theory."

“If what they’re saying is she made a copy three years ago and then held on to it … I’m not seeing it. I have a lot of questions about that theory," Fakhoury said. “Not only does it not sound like a crime, it doesn’t sound like the kind of crime the computer hacking statute would criminalize."

The criminal complaint alleges Teran committed all 11 felonies on April 26, 2021. At the time, Gascón was pushing to improve the office's Discovery Compliance Unit, asking every law enforcement agency in L.A. County to provide the names of officers and deputies with disciplinary histories that might affect their credibility as witnesses. This "Brady compliance" was among the topics Teran was hired to advise on in early 2021.

In June of that year, The Times reported that more than 40 county agencies had failed to comply with Gascón's request, including the Sheriff's Department.

Read more: California DOJ civil rights probe of Sheriff's Department headed to settlement, sources say

Six months out from the general election between Hochman and Gascón, it's unclear what, if any, impact the controversy will have. Some have taken the filing as a political betrayal since Bonta endorsed Gascón in 2020 and defeated Hochman in the 2022 attorney general's race. Hochman has referred to Bonta as one of Gascón's "biggest supporters." Bonta has not endorsed Gascón in the current cycle.

Roy Behr, a political consultant who has advised on dozens of Los Angeles-based races, said the facts of the Teran case might be too complex for an election hyper-focused on perceptions of crime and public safety. Unless Gascón were to be implicated in Teran's alleged crimes, Behr believes the incumbent has bigger obstacles to his reelection bid.

"The people who want to beat him are focusing on the supposed increase in crime and anarchy in Los Angeles, and they want to tag him with that. And that is a very powerful message. It’s the primary reason that he is potentially vulnerable," Behr said. “I’m not saying it's insignificant, I’m saying it is relatively minor compared to the bigger problem for Gascón.”

Times staff writers Richard Winton and Alene Tchekmedyian contributed to this report.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.