'Kind of bunk': A closer look at the controversial case against a top L.A. D.A. official

Los Angeles, CA - May 25: Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon addresses police accountability and the actions taken by his office to restore trust in the community during a press conference on Wednesday, May 25, 2022 in Los Angeles, CA. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón during a 2022 news conference. (Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

One legal expert called it “kind of bunk.” Another said it simply raises more questions than it answers.

But two months after state prosecutors announced 11 felony charges against a top advisor to Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón, a newly unsealed court record offers a window into the controversial case.

The basis for the allegations against Gascón advisor Diana Teran had remained opaque since California Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta announced them in April.

State prosecutors have said only that Teran improperly accessed confidential police records while working as the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department’s constitutional policing advisor in 2018, then improperly used data from those records when she joined the district attorney’s office three years later.

It's been unclear whose files she’d allegedly used or how, but after weeks of legal wrangling, an attorney for the Los Angeles Public Press convinced a judge to unseal the affidavit used to justify the arrest warrant.

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

The 15-page document, unsealed late Tuesday, shows the core allegations are focused on Teran’s efforts to include more deputies’ names in district attorney's databases used to track problem officers, much as her attorney had previously speculated.

But the document also shows that records of disciplinary against at least two of the 11 deputies were already public when she flagged them for inclusion. This week, The Times found the records were easily located through a Google search.

The identities of the nine other deputies were still redacted in the public version of the affidavit — though Teran’s lawyer said he was “99% confident” their records were already public as well.

“I can’t believe a case would be filed on this type of evidence,” James Spertus told The Times. “I understated before how bad this case was.”

On Wednesday, several legal experts who reviewed the affidavit raised questions about the case.

“It strikes me as we’ve lost the forest for the trees from a broader criminal justice point of view,” said Hanni Fakhoury, a San Francisco attorney with a background in computer crimes. “It’s not like she’s putting people on the database who shouldn’t be there.”

In an emailed statement, Bonta’s office declined to comment, citing the need to “protect the integrity” of a pending case.

One law enforcement source familiar with the matter — who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record — said the state is considering dropping two of the charges against Teran, and late Wednesday, Spertus confirmed that was his expectation as well.

With months to go before the general election — in which Gascón is facing a serious challenger — some have taken the Teran prosecution as a political betrayal, because Bonta endorsed Gascón four years ago. But it’s unclear what, if any, impact the controversy will have on the race.

The district attorney's office and the Sheriff’s Department did not immediately offer comment.

The 15-page affidavit signed by Special Agent Tony Baca of the state Department of Justice traces the investigation into Teran back to a traffic stop involving a different district attorney's official three years ago.

The affidavit doesn’t identify that official, but the details line up with the December 2021 arrest of Gascón’s chief of staff, Joseph Iniguez.

As The Times previously reported, Azusa police pulled over Iniguez’s fiance after he allegedly made an illegal U-turn into a McDonald’s drive-through. Police said Iniguez tried to interfere with the stop, and arrested him on suspicion of public intoxication.

The police union later alleged that Iniguez threatened to have the arresting officer’s name added to the district attorney’s so-called Brady List, which contains officers with problematic disciplinary histories. The name is a reference to a landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision that requires prosecutors to turn over any evidence favorable to a defendant — including evidence of police misconduct.

Given the potential conflict of interest, the case against Iniguez was turned over to the California Department of Justice. But state prosecutors never pursued charges, and Iniguez eventually sued the Azusa Police Department in a case that was settled last year.

According to Baca’s affidavit, the state’s investigation somehow led officials to Teran, who had responsibility for the district attorney's Brady database. The Department of Justice has not offered further explanation.

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

Spertus said previously he believed the investigation into his client was sparked by a complaint from former Sheriff Alex Villanueva, who said in 2019 he alerted the FBI and the state Department of Justice about a “massive data breach” involving Teran. At the time, neither agency agreed to take on the case.

When Teran worked at the Sheriff’s Department under Villanueva’s predecessor, part of her usual duties included accessing confidential deputy records and internal affairs investigations. According to Baca’s affidavit, the department’s secret tracking software logged all of her searches starting in 2018.

When she joined the district attorney’s office in 2021, Teran allegedly began suggesting the names of deputies who should be added to the Brady list — a practice two prosecutors told Baca was not usual. Then in April 2021, the affidavit says, Teran sent a list of 33 names to another prosecutor for possible inclusion in the databases.

The affidavit says that several of those names were deputies whose files she’d accessed while working at the Sheriff’s Department, and that she “would not have identified so many of these deputy sheriffs” otherwise. The affidavit also alleges that some of the documents Teran sent along with the names appeared to have been "scanned, copied, or taken directly from the LASD data files.”

The 11 charges, Baca wrote, reflected the 11 of those 33 deputies whose names did “not appear in either public records request responses or media articles.”

Susan Seager, the attorney who fought for the record’s release, questioned that reasoning.

“This is a ridiculously narrow and inaccurate way of determining whether their disciplinary files are confidential,” she wrote in an emailed statement.

Read more: When prosecutor is defendant: L.A. D.A. George Gascón's legal battles with his own staff

Seager went on to call it “stunning” that Bonta would describe the 11 deputies’ records as confidential, pointing out that two names — Liza Gonzalez and Thomas Negron — were not redacted in the released affidavit.

“Bonta’s office doesn’t explain why it unsealed those two names,” Seager wrote, “but perhaps that’s because there are two California court of appeal decisions dated 2014 and 2015 that discuss in great detail the disciplinary files of deputies Gonzalez and Negron and how they were fired for dishonesty in in 2010 and 2011, respectively.”

Other legal experts who reviewed the affidavit were similarly critical.

“I think it raises more questions than it answers — partly because there are still redactions,” said police oversight expert Michael Gennaco, adding it was “interesting” that the investigator who authored the affidavit didn’t appear to have done a case of this nature before.

Cristine Soto DeBerry, executive director of the Prosecutors Alliance, panned the “absurdity” of the case.

“A prosecutor earnestly trying to do her job and track important information should be applauded not punished,” she said in an emailed statement.

Fakhoury, the attorney with a background in computer crimes, pointed out that state prosecutors don’t appear to be claiming that any of the information Teran flagged for inclusion in the Brady database was incorrect or didn’t belong there.

“It also appears to me that there’s no allegation that she didn’t have computer access to the records at least when she was employed by the Sheriff’s Department,” he said. “So the unauthorized access is that she took the information she was allowed to have and used it after she left the Sheriff’s Department.”

Fakhoury said federal prosecutors have tried to argue the theory that “unauthorized access” would include cases akin to Teran’s, in which someone accessed data for a permitted purpose and later used it for a different purpose. But the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected that theory, he said, and California’s Supreme Court has not weighed in on how broadly the state statute should be interpreted.

“It’s an odd case,” he said. “I think it’s kind of bunk, frankly.”

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

Legally, he said, it might not matter whether the records were already public —though that could raise larger questions about the decision to prosecute Teran.

He wondered whether it might have a “chilling effect” on other prosecutors focused on police accountability: “Is this what we really want this kind of statute and this kind of investigation to go after?”

Times staff writers James Queally and Richard Winton contributed to this report. 

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.