Long Beach mayoral candidate takes over case at center of OCDA scandal

Long Beach mayoral candidate and 3rd District Councilwoman Suzie Price is now supervising a murder prosecution that lies at the heart of a scandal over the Orange County District Attorney questioning Black men’s dating habits during a discussion with attorneys over the death penalty—comments Price called “unacceptable and offensive.”

OC District Attorney Todd Spitzer, a Republican first elected in 2018 and currently running for reelection, is under fire for comments he made while discussing a Black murder defendant during an Oct. 1 meeting with prosecutors and attorneys. The meeting involved discussions on whether the OCDA’s office would seek the death penalty in the case of Jamon Buggs, who is charged with murdering two Newport Beach residents three years ago.

It was at this meeting that Spitzer asked about the race of Buggs’s previous girlfriends and then talked about reasons why Black men would want to date White women, speculating that Black men dated White women to improve “their stature in the community,” as he explained later to the LA Times. Spitzer has since said he regretted the comments, saying they were “inartful” and “insensitive,” according to a statement released by the OCDA’s office.

“I am not perfect, but an inartful comment during an hours-long debate in a double murder case is not reflective of my core beliefs or the years I have spent fighting to make our society more equitable and our communities safe for everyone,” Spitzer said in the statement.

In December 2021, senior assistant DA Brahim Baytieh wrote a series of memos detailing Spitzer’s comments and recommending that they be disclosed to defense attorneys in the Buggs case, according to the LA Times.

Spitzer subsequently fired Baytieh, who had once been a close adviser of his, though he denied it had anything to do with the Buggs case memos.

In late January, Price, a senior assistant DA who’s been with the OCDA’s office since 2005 and has 22 years experience as a prosecutor, took over the Buggs prosecution, according to Price.

When asked what she thought of her boss’s comments, Price at first would say only that she agreed with Spitzer’s own assessment that his words were inartful and insensitive.

“Comments related to race have no place in the important work we do in the criminal justice system,” she said. “Our work should be unbiased, fair and impartial. That’s really all I can say because this is an active case.”

Later, through a spokesperson, Price said that “if the reported statements are true, they are unacceptable and offensive.”

On Feb. 3, Acting Lt. Court Depweg of the Newport Beach PD, who was working closely with the initial prosecution team in the Buggs case, wrote a letter to the judge presiding over the Buggs case detailing what Spitzer had said.

Depweg said he had a “constitutional duty” to disclose Spitzer’s comments to the court as they amounted to “possible misconduct,” according to Depweg’s letter, which was later posted by Voice of OC.

In his letter, Depweg says Price attended a lunch in early October with Spitzer and Baytieh in which Spitzer’s comments were discussed.

Both Price and a spokesperson for the OCDA’s office denied that Price ever attended any lunch with Spitzer, and denied that Price had ever heard or participated in any discussion of Spitzer’s comments.

Price also would not comment on Depweg’s contention that Spitzer’s comments amounted to possible misconduct.

At the time Spitzer made his comments on the Buggs case, Price said she was managing prosecutors at the Westminster Court. She said she had nothing to do with the Buggs case until she was given control over it in late January.

“Anytime there’s a potential conflict, a wall goes up,” she said, referring to the initial prosecution team. “I am on the opposite side as the District Attorney.”

Spitzer has also drawn fire for a video that recently surfaced of him repeatedly using the N-word while quoting a white supremacist his office had prosecuted before the Iranian American Bar Association back in November 2019. Spitzer has said he was merely quoting the man’s original statements.

In early January, Tracy Miller, also a senior assistant district attorney, resigned from the OCDA’s office. On Feb. 22, she filed a lawsuit against the County of Orange alleging that Spitzer had made a “hostile work environment” that included “gender-based harassment” and “race-based practices,” according to Miller’s complaint, which was also posted by Voice of OC.

Spitzer said Miller’s claims are false, according to a statement from the OCDA’s office.

Following media reports of Spitzer’s comments, district attorneys representing Alameda, Riverside and San Diego counties rescinded their earlier endorsements of Spitzer’s reelection.

Rick Callender, president of the California and Hawaii state conference of the NAACP, has called on Spitzer to resign over his comments. “Your disgusting and obviously racist beliefs disqualify you from being an elected official at any level of government,” Callender posted on Twitter on Feb. 20. “No member of modern civilized society would support or even condone these kind[s] of Jim Crow views.”

Marc H. Morial, president and CEO of the Urban League, has also called on Spitzer to resign. “Spitzer’s comments are evidence not only of his own entrenched belief in a racial hierarchy, but the implicit bias that pervades the criminal justice system at every level,” Morial said in a Feb. 24 statement.

In response, the OCDA’s office released brief statements from Bobby McDonald, president of the Black Chamber of Orange County, and Mark E. Whitlock, Jr., former pastor of Christ Our Redeemer AME Church in Irvine, praising Spitzer for his record as a prosecutor.

Because the office of mayor is a full-time job, Price would have to resign from the OCDA’s office if she wins the election. Her current position as Long Beach’s 3rd District council member is considered part-time.

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