A federal prosecutor in Santa Ana is suing the U.S. Department of Justice, alleging supervisors retaliated against him for complaining about widespread racism within the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Charles Pell, who is white, contends in a federal whistleblower lawsuit filed last week that his less-than-outstanding performance review in 2020 stemmed from his associations with Black and Latino female prosecutors in his office. He also was disciplined by his supervisors.
Pell filed a formal complaint with the Department of Justice’s Equal Employment Opportunity office on June 29, 2020, but has since exhausted all administrative remedies. His lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.
“This case is about discrimination in the absolutely last place it should ever exist — in a federal prosecutors’ office responsible for deciding whom to investigate, charge, and imprison, and in one of the most diverse areas of the nation,” says the suit.
Thom Mrozek, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, declined to comment on the suit Tuesday.
Pattern of discrimination, retaliation
Pell, whose partner is Latina and whose biological son is of mixed race, alleges that in 2018 he complained verbally and in writing about discrimination exhibited by Assistant U.S. Attorney and Criminal Division Chief Scott Garringer toward a Latina prosecutor for work-related matters.
Garringer had derided the Latina prosecutor’s investigative and written work as “shoddy’ and substandard as a pretext to asserting she was “lazy and stupid,” common racial tropes directed at Latinos, particularly females, according to the suit.
Pell says he raised concerns about Garringer’s discriminatory treatment of the prosecutor with former U.S. Attorney Nicola Hanna and other managers for the Central District of California.
The lawsuit also alleges that management at the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s headquarters in Los Angeles became all white in May 2019.
Among those forced out was Black former federal prosecutor Lawrence S. Middleton, who won convictions against the officers who beat Rodney King and once headed the criminal division for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, according to the complaint.
About the same time, the U.S. Attorney’s Office faced multiple allegations of discrimination from minority and female prosecutors who claimed they were denied promotions or received less-desirable assignments compared to their white male counterparts, the suit says.
History of outstanding performance
Pell alleges that in February 2020 his immediate supervisor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel Ahn, emailed Assistant U.S. Attorney Benjamin Barron, chief of the Santa Ana office, and recommended Pell receive an “outstanding” rating for his 2019 midyear review.
“Charles’s case handling in 2019 was outstanding,” the email said, according to the suit. “In 2019, he was among our office’s most productive charging AUSAs, bringing nine cases involving eleven defendants. During the same time, he handled his other investigations and post-indictment matters, including a complex and contested sentencing against a birth tourism operator. Notably, Charles did not sacrifice complexity for efficiency. Charles’s cases are among the most complex in our district. He has an incredible work ethic.”
However, Barron decided to change Pell’s recommended “outstanding” rating from Ahn to a lower rating, citing a concern about Pell’s lingering volume of old cases.
The lawsuit alleges Pell was the only prosecutor in the Santa Ana office to receive a downgraded rating for purported performance-related issues, adding Barron substantially altered the content of Ahn’s recommendation to include “false, misleading, and pretextual statements.”
Also in 2020, Pell, for the first time in his career as a federal prosecutor, was formally disciplined and issued a letter of reprimand for alleged unprofessional conduct.
Memo recommends reforms
It was a precipitous fall from grace for Pell, who just five years earlier had been recognized with a prestigious California Lawyer Attorney of the Year award from the Los Angeles Daily Journal. Pell, a former public schoolteacher in Montebello, also was an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy.
On June 19, 2020, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, a Black female prosecutor sent a memorandum to Hanna signed by 100 assistant U.S attorneys outlining proposals for racial justice, equity and inclusion within the office.
“Assistant U.S. attorneys from all divisions of the office have emailed you regarding George Floyd’s death, the recent protests, and the press releases issued by this office in response to both,” says the memo sent on Juneteenth, a federal holiday commemorating the emancipation of the last African-American slaves. “Many of those assistant U.S attorneys identified the undeniable relationship between the racial injustices we see outside our walls and the racial inequities we see within them, especially as it concerns underrepresented people of color — inequities that assistant U.S. attorneys, staff, office alumni, the federal bench, and the federal bar have spoken about for years.
“Unfortunately, courageous conversations about race and current events — while necessary — are not enough. We must be committed to fulfilling our mission. This is a time for action.”
The memo included several recommendations, including the use of statistical data to identify and address racial disparities in the office’s cases and employment practices. Other proposals called for the hiring of a racial justice coordinator and a diversity, equity and inclusion officer.
The lawsuit alleges Pell’s participation in one of the working groups to address recommendations in the memo led Hanna and others to retaliate against him.
Pell also sent an email to Barron detailing racially insensitive and inappropriate statements by Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Christensen during a meeting in 2018 in which she allegedly mocked a Black employee by stating that he was wearing his “pimp daddy outfit,” when he simply had been wearing a nice suit, the complaint says.
The lawsuit should serve as a wake-up call for the U.S Attorney’s Office and other employers, said Neama Rahmani, Pell’s attorney.
“Racially insensitive comments are unacceptable in any workplace, but especially the Department of Justice, which is tasked with enforcing our nation’s civil rights laws,” he added.
“We hope that this lawsuit will give courage to others to come forward and speak up against racism, without fear of retaliation by their employer.”