Deputy DA sues Gascón for defamation, racial discrimination

Jon Hatami, prosecutor for the Complex Victims Unit, sits in his SCV home in this 2019 Signal file photo. Dan Watson/The Signal
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A Los Angeles County deputy district attorney filed a defamation and racial discrimination lawsuit against his boss, District Attorney George Gascón, in response to comments made by the elected official in television interviews. 

Deputy District Attorney Jon Hatami, a Santa Clarita resident, alleged both Gascón and his spokesman, Max Szabo, published defamatory language about Hatami and discriminated against him for his Iranian heritage. 

When asked for comment in response to the suit Wednesday, Gascón’s office said it would be “unable to comment on personnel matters and on potential pending litigation.”

“‘Some people will be unhappy and either become internal terrorists or they’ll leave,’” Gascón said in a podcast interview recorded in February 2020, which was cited in the complaint. Hatami alleged Gascón’s wording of that statement was directed at established deputy district attorneys and Hatami, who himself is “part Iranian and whose father is Muslim.” 

Additionally, the suit alleges that Szabo, an employee who has identified himself to the media as a spokesman for the District Attorney’s Office, offered defamatory remarks about Hatami in a Fox 11 News interview. Szabo is credited with saying Hatami had “delusional theories” and questioned Hatami’s “fitness to practice law” in response to Hatami’s criticism of Gascón’s new policies, according to the complaint. 

Hatami was lead prosecutor for the Gabriel Fernandez trial, which ended with Pearl Fernandez, Gabriel’s mother, being sentenced to life without parole and her boyfriend, Isauro Aguirre, receiving the death penalty, in connection to the 2013 torture and murder of the 8-year-old Palmdale boy.  

In a Nov. 18, 2020, interview with Spectrum News 1, Gascón said Aguirre had “rubbed (Hatami) the wrong way” and that because Aguirre did not accept the prosecutor’s plea deal, Hatami sought the death penalty in the case as “retaliation,” according to Hatami’s suit. 

“I was shocked,” Hatami said Wednesday, when asked what his reaction was when he heard what he says was an attack on the Gabriel Fernandez case by the district attorney. “I was shocked that the D.A. would put down Gabriel, would put down Gabriel’s family, would say something that affects the case … especially (because) every single thing he said (about Hatami’s work on the Fernandez trial) was a lie.”

Hatami acknowledged his criticism of Gascón’s new directives, including a ban on prosecutors attending parole hearings, the elimination of sentencing enhancements and other policies. However, he believes that Gascón responded to his criticisms in an unprofessional manner and created a hostile work environment.

The suit alleges that Hatami had taken his complaint of the behavior to the Board of Supervisors, as well as the California State Bar and others, but his arguments were ignored. 

“We’re definitely looking for an apology from the D.A., a public apology from the Board of Supervisors and a statement from all of them saying that what (Gascón) is doing is inappropriate,” said Hatami. “And the fact is that you’ve now affected me and all of my cases, you’ve affected me both emotionally and medically, and so we are seeking monetary damages as a result of that.”

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