Gascon justifies secrecy in Guardian interview

Visual used during this morning's City Hall press conference by three candidates for DA.

Three top candidates for district attorney held a joint press conference this morning calling out District Attorney George Gascon for refusing to release a controversial memo by a consultant hired by the DA's office outlining problems with DNA analysis in the city's crime lab, which was overseen at the time by then-Police Chief Gascon.

Instead of obeying a judge's order that he release the document, Gascon is clinging to a thin legal interpretation that it is a work product that he can withhold, choosing instead to spend city resources appealing the ruling. Journalist Peter Jamison has repeatedly written about the memo and the crime lab in the SF Weekly, but it was the Bay Guardian who got Gascon's most extensive comments to date on it during his endorsement interview with us last week.

Starting just after the 23 minute mark when I asked about the memo and continuing for more than 10 minutes, Gascon – who earlier presented himself as one of the state's most progressive law enforcement officials – takes credit for exposing problems with the crime lab but offers a fairly tortured rationale for hiding a document that might prove embarrassing during election season.

The California Public Records Act allows limited disclosure exceptions for what's called “work product,” or drafts of internal documents meant to be works in progress, but it doesn't require those documents to remain secret (as with personnel records, for example). Gascon admits that he could release the document but that he chooses not to.

“There are several concerns here. This is a memo that is largely the opinions of an individual that is a work product, it is within the office of the District Attorney's Office, and there is good public policy as to why you have work product. You want to have robust discussions and honest self assessment of what works and what doesn't work,” he said.

We noted that the consultant, Rockne Harmon, was brought in to bring problems with the crime lab to light so they could be addressed (not attorneys discussing the strengths and weaknesses of a case, the example Gascon cited), that Harmon actually wants to memo to be released, and that no possible public harm could come from this.

Gascon even agreed with that last point, telling us, “This document is quite harmless, but it's the concept of the ability of people to have honest self-assessment and self-critical discussions.” He said they were reviewing the judge's ruling and “we'll comply with the court.” Then, the very next day, he announced that he would appeal the ruling.

Clearly – as DA candidaes David Onek, Sharmin Bock, and Bill Fazio noted this morning – Gascon is hiding the document because he's worried it will make him look bad. And as our discussion with Gascon illustrates, he is not someone who places a high value on transparency, which is a real problem given the history of damaging secrecy in both the SFPD and the DA's office.

So give a listen to a candid discussion about a breaking news story on an important issue and weigh in with your thoughts. BTW, as an added bonus, keep listening to the interview to hear the perspective of an unlikely supporter that Gascon brought with him: attorney Matt Gonzalez, who galvanized the progressive movement with his 2003 mayoral run.