A federal judge ordered an independent investigation Thursday into whether top California corrections officials deliberately misled court officials into believing that mentally ill inmates generally receive proper care.
U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller ordered former U.S. Attorney Charles Stevens to investigate allegations contained in a 161-page whistleblower report by Dr. Michael Golding, the prison system's chief psychiatrist.
Mueller oversees the state prisons' mental health system as part of a long-running lawsuit. She ordered investigators to help her determine whether prison officials committed "fraud on the court or intentionally misled the court" by presenting rosy statistics about inmates' care.
Golding says officials systematically misrepresented that nearly every inmate was being seen by psychiatrists within time limits set by the court, when really fewer than half were being seen on time and some visits were delayed by months.
Officials also falsely asserted that inmates were receiving confidential care and that officials at one prison changed their practices to mislead the court's inspectors, Golding said.
Corrections officials denied what they called "uncorroborated, largely meritless fraud allegations" and objected to being required to pay for an investigation they said could be conducted by existing court-appointed monitors. They also said in recent court filings that Mueller is exceeding her authority by ordering an investigation that is broader than necessary.
"The court has not merely the authority, but also the duty, to protect the integrity of the judicial process," Mueller wrote in explaining why she wants an outside investigation.
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Stevens, of the Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher firm in San Francisco, was appointed U.S. Attorney for eastern California by former Democratic President Bill Clinton. He notably led the prosecution of the Unabomber, Theodore John Kaczynski, in the 1990s.
Mueller ordered the state to pay for the investigation over its objections. It will include not only Stevens, but a team he assembles to assist him including former U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner, an appointee of former Democratic President Barack Obama.
She ordered Stevens to report within four months whether there is enough evidence to justify a court hearing into whether state officials "intentionally presented false or misleading information to the court."
Corrections officials said Golding was mistaken, confused, took routine benign practices out of context, or was too quick "to attribute nefarious intent to inadvertent error."
"Defendants have confirmed that no fraud on this Court has occurred," the department's lawyers said in their court filings. "Dr. Golding's implication that patients languish for many months without a psychiatric contact is inaccurate."
Mueller has said she sees no evidence of criminal wrongdoing but wants an investigation into whether prison officials committed civil fraud.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently refused to block Mueller's threat to fine the state $1,000 a day if state officials don't start providing swifter care for mentally ill inmates. Mueller threatened to hold the state in civil contempt last year, but held off on levying any fines in part because the state appealed her order.
The appellate panel ruled late last month that any appeal was premature. It separately upheld her order requiring the state to swiftly provide treatment for inmates experiencing a mental health crisis.