Democratic California senator Kamala Harris covered up a wide-ranging surveillance scheme in which a single Riverside County judge ordered hundreds of wiretaps snaring millions of phone calls and thousands of unsuspecting people across the country, according to whistleblower case evidence obtained by Big League Politics.
New evidence shows how then-California attorney general Kamala Harris’ office defied precedent to conceal and obscure the details of this illegal operation, including by “locking” a mandatory annual report on intercepted communications from public disclosure and allegedly changing the numbering system on the official report to make it impossible to identify each wiretap coming out of Riverside County. Many of these wiretaps were never explained and never resulted in action, and targets are still unnamed.
Kamala Harris served as California attorney general from 2011 to 2017, when she took her Senate seat.
Riverside County Superior Court judge Helios Hernandez, appointed by Democrat governor Gray Davis, ordered 624 wiretaps in 2014, almost five times more than any other American judge, and 44,000 people and over 2 million conversations were tapped. Hernandez even got 17 wiretap applications in one day. Some of Hernandez’s wiretaps have been found to be illegal by prosecutors, leading to the dropping of some cases and the surrender of assets seized by the feds. A federal judge said legal standards “could not have been met” with regard to the Riverside County wiretaps. Approximately 18 percent of the more than 4 million conversations wiretapped in the state of California in 2016 were incriminating.
The wiretapping scheme coincided with a period of massive revenue gains for the state of California from civil asset forfeitures overseen by Kamala Harris’ office. In 2014, Riverside County collected more than $3 million in civil asset forfeitures.
Stephanie J. Lacambra, criminal defense staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is representing a retired California Highway Patrol officer who was targeted with a wiretap, and who still has no idea why.
“It looked like the FBI and DEA were shopping because they could get this one judge in Riverside County” to sign off on wiretap orders, Lacambra told Big League Politics, referring to Riverside County judge Helios Hernandez.
Lacambra that the “specter of impropriety” led to numerous of these cases being dropped nationwide. “It looked like there was not justification for the sheer number of wiretaps coming out of this county.”
Lacambra said that her client’s wiretap “occurred during the time in which this spike in wiretaps was happening in 2015.”
“The problem lies in that the district attorney’s office that had the responsibility of issuing notice to individuals who were targets failed to notify those targets,” Lacambra told Big League Politics, noting that people were completely unaware that they were being wiretapped.
“What we’re doing right now is trying to convince the court to exercise its discretion to release the information” about her client’s wiretap, before going to the next step of a lawsuit.
“In California there is a state law that says the target of a wiretap can ask the court to release the documents…we’re trying to get that information first,” Lacambra said.
In 2015, Kamala Harris’ attorney general’s office made the unprecedented decision to release California’s Electronic Interceptions Report as a “locked” PDF not available to members of the public, according to documents obtained by Big League Politics.
An April 23, 2015 letter on Kamala Harris’ official attorney general stationery denied Lacambra’s firm’s request to see the report.
A deputy attorney general wrote on Harris’ behalf:
“Since that time, our Office has changed its security protocol regarding reports and other documents that are made available electronically to members of the public on our public web site. Now, all such reports and documents appearing on our public website are only made available to members of the public in a locked PDF format. We have made this change in orderto better protect the security and integrity of the data in our public records.
Unfortunately, given our new procedure, we are unable to provide you with an electric copy of the 2014 Electronic Interception report in a Microsoft Word format. We apologize for any inconvenience that this new change may cause for you.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s persistence eventually led to the publication of the 2015 report, but problems persisted.
The report was incomprehensible in the sense that Riverside County wiretap reports did not correspond to the wiretap order numbers, and were not in correct sequential order like other counties, according to a source.
The Riverside County wiretaps had identifying numbers in the report starting at over 1,000, even though there were not more than 1,000 wiretaps from that county in 2014 or 2015, making it impossible to trace or identify some of the wiretaps, including in the case of Lacambra’s client, the retired California Highway Patrol officer. That officer’s issued wiretap number does not correspond with any of the numbers indexed in the report.
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