SANTA ANA — Orange County authorities have secretly seated a second grand jury that will spend the next several weeks hearing evidence in a massive drug investigation that could net more than 100 defendants, law enforcement officials said Friday.
The case marks the first time in county history that a second grand jury has been impaneled to perform special law enforcement tasks, a grand jury official said.
"We're talking a big deal here," said Santa Ana Police Chief Paul M. Walters, whose department has served as the lead agency in the case resulting from months of undercover work by local and federal agencies.
"I can't say a whole lot until the grand jury is finished, but when you see how this was done, it will be amazing," Walters said.
The grand jury is charged with reviewing evidence in criminal cases and also performs a separate role as a watchdog over county agencies.
Presiding Orange County Superior Court Judge James L. Smith said Friday that he administered the oath of service to the second grand jury in late July and expects it will be disbanded by month's end.
Smith said prosecutors wanted the additional jury because the complex case would take at least 20 days, or four full weeks of grand jury meetings.
Placing such a burden on the regular grand jury--impaneled last month for a year of service-- would interrupt scheduled training sessions, Smith said. Those training sessions involve travel throughout the county to familiarize jury members with county government operations.
Typically, grand jury applicants volunteer for service or are nominated by Orange County Superior Court judges and then go through a lengthy screening process before the 19-member panel is selected by lot.
But Smith said the members of the second grand jury were selected from the standard pool of jurors summoned to the courthouse for jury duty.
"It was impaneled at the request of the district attorney," Smith said. "I didn't want to set back the current grand jury."
Prosecutors and court officials declined Friday to identify those selected for the second panel and would not comment about the nature of the case before them.
The secrecy surrounding the naming of the second grand jury is unusual. County officials have pledged in recent months to open grand jury service to a more diverse cross-section of the community.
That pledge came after immigrant rights advocates and others criticized the makeup of past panels as not being representative of Orange County's growing minority population.
County officials first learned of the new panel late this week during budget briefings when Superior Court officials requested an additional $18,000 to pay for the "temporary" operations of a second grand jury for investigative matters that were not disclosed.
County Budget Director Fred Branca said the additional funding did not appear to be substantial, but by late this week he had not been told why the additional money was needed.
In the past, Dist. Atty. Michael R. Capizzi has been an advocate of creating two grand jury panels: one to consider evidence in criminal cases and another to focus on its watchdog role.
Capizzi could not be reached for comment.
One county official familiar with the proceedings said that authorities from a number of agencies had been working for at least three months on the street "making a series of dope buys."
"The grand jury was needed to bring the whole thing together," the official said. "It has been impaneled for a very limited purpose."