A federal judge in Sacramento indicated Thursday that she would appoint a prominent San Francisco attorney to investigate whether state prison officials intentionally filed misleading and false information with the court over the quality of psychiatric care being provided to more than 30,000 California inmates.
The order by U.S. District Judge Kimberly J. Mueller to appoint former U.S. Attorney Charles J. “Chuck” Stevens was made over the strenuous objections of lawyers for the state, who contend Mueller’s move is unnecessary and “vastly exceeds the court’s authority.”
The judge’s order still gives both sides time to comment on the decision, with Mueller saying she will formally appoint an independent investigator after giving both the state and lawyers representing inmates seven days to submit their views of the plan to have Stevens fill that role.
Mueller’s order comes in response to explosive allegations leveled by Dr. Michael Golding, the chief psychiatrist for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, who accused his own employer of submitting phony data to the court as both sides were in the process of finalizing an agreement on the level of psychiatric care that must be provided to inmates.
Golding made his allegations in a 160-page secret report that he leaked in October to officials appointed to oversee medical care in the prisons, and Mueller subsequently made much of the report public and ordered CDCR not to retaliate against Golding or other whistleblowers who may have helped him compile his report.
The report says the state has been misreporting progress made in improving psychiatric care in the prisons, and that inmates have suffered as a result. One instance Golding cited involved a mentally ill female inmate who was not given medication and pulled out one of her eyeballs and swallowed it.
Golding released the report just days before lawyers for the inmates, who had sued over conditions inside the prisons, were set to sign off on an agreement with CDCR indicating that they believed psychiatric care had improved to proper levels.
Lawyers for the state have argued that Golding’s conclusions are wrong and that his report is based on his own misunderstanding of information he reviewed.
“Dr. Golding’s allegations are not accurate,” lawyers for the state wrote in a court filing last week, and argued that a full vetting of the controversy could be completed without the appointment of an independent investigator.
Lawyers for the inmates dispute that, and said in their own filing last week that since Golding came forward they have heard from “numerous former CDCR employees, including multiple psychiatrists, raising concerns and providing additional relevant information related to the allegations in the Golding report.”
State prison officials had no immediate comment Thursday.
Michael Bien, lead attorney for the team representing the inmates, said he did not know Stevens but noted that he is a partner with the highly regarded Gibson Dunn law firm.
“They’re not going to be pushed around by CDCR or the Attorney General’s office,” Bien said. “And if there is resistance, I’m sure they will bring it to the attention of the court.
“He’s a serious lawyer.”
Stevens, who has previously represented The Sacramento Bee and its parent, The McClatchy Co., did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He was appointed by President Bill Clinton to be the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, based in Sacramento, and oversaw prosecution of the Unabomber case and political corruption cases.
Mueller also indicated she plans to allow Stevens to hire a team of investigators “as he deems necessary,” including Ben Wagner, who served as U.S. Attorney in Sacramento under President Barack Obama and who was hired into the office as a prosecutor years earlier by Stevens.
Mueller’s plan would have Stevens submit a report to her within four months that would be used to decide whether she should order a hearing to determine whether prison officials “intentionally presented false or misleading information to the court.”
The cost of the investigation has not yet been determined, but Mueller ordered the state to pay for it as part of its overall responsibility for improving medical care in the prisons.
“The investigation here is necessary to clear the air so the court is assured it has an accurate foundation for determining whether and when defendants have achieved a durable and reliable remedy in this action,” Mueller wrote.