Sheriff Candidate John Hirokawa Says He Willfully Ignored His Campaign Funder’s Bigoted Texts

During an arbitration interview last year, John Hirokawa testified that demoting Sgt. Don Morrissey for his involvement in a texting scandal was “too severe.” Based on what he knows now, Hirokawa says the punishment wasn’t severe enough.

Last week, after a San Jose Inside story reignited the issue, the ex-Santa Clara County undersheriff says union president Morrissey should have been fired from the department—and he also wants him to step down as Deputy Sheriffs’ Association (DSA) president.

“Based on what I know today, he should be terminated,” Hirokawa affirmed toward the end of an hour-and-a-half June 22 interview.

But Hirokawa—who’s challenging Sheriff Laurie Smith’s re-election this fall—has had many chances to learn the facts of the case and, by his own admission, chose not to.

After a criminal probe initially unearthed the vile text messages three years ago, the Sheriff’s Office convened a series of all-hands-on-deck meetings to deal with the flurry of media coverage. The 2015 discussions involved top brass, communications staff and outsourced public relations consultants gathered around a conference table, passing around a binder full of some of the 3,000 texts, which included references to “kikes,” “gooks,” a “shemale,” “nig nogs” and “yard apes.”

“How many soups to have your ass licked?” DSA president Morrissey quipped in one thread mocking inmates exchanging sexual favors for commissary items. In another, he responded to a colleague’s misogynistic joke about an “irritated cunt” by asking if it referred to Sheriff Smith.

It was a first-of-its-kind scandal for the agency, which was still reeling from unprecedented scrutiny after three jail guards beat mentally ill inmate Michael Tyree to death a few months prior.

As second-in-command and head of the jails, Hirokawa took part in the huddles alongside Smith and other members of the command staff. They talked about the racist, sexist, transphobic content of the texts exchanged amongst about a dozen officers, including the heads of two unions. It was a public relations nightmare, a uniquely digital-era problem at a time of mounting public distrust of law enforcement nationwide.

In last week’s interview, Hirokawa said he made a point of not cracking open that binder because he thought reading the texts would violate the privacy rights of the senders.

“There was still a concern that … we’re sharing personnel records with people who don’t have a right to know, in violation of personnel law,” he said of his mindset at the time.

When an independent investigative team led by retired Oakland police chief Howard Jordan hammered out a draft report on the case about three months later, Hirokawa was tasked with editing it. Instead of poring over the 26-page document, however, Hirokawa said he skipped to the end and merely “skimmed” the findings. Weighing in too heavily would have compromised the integrity of the investigation, he explained.

“And, you know,” he said with nervous laughter, “it looked all good to me.”

When Morrissey contested the demotion, Hirokawa again raised concerns about privacy and free speech rights, and whether the texts were sent on or off duty. When asked in a deposition last fall what concerns him about the sustained charges against Morrissey—that is, failure to report misconduct—Hirokawa responded with the same doctrinaire reasoning he tends to lapse into while discussing the case.

“As a department moving forward, again it was about the level of involvement and his—that the expectations in what was clear in the policy—or in the general orders [county policies],” he replied, according to arbitration records first obtained by the Mercury News in February. “The expectation that a supervisor, or let’s just say manager, command staff person may be at an event. And whether it be, like, a birthday party, wedding, gathering or just being together and drinking or being at a gathering, an event, and certain bantering or conversation going between people at a private event, and then when overheard by a supervisor or a manager, was there an expectation for them to come forward and report what was said and who said it.”

“And you didn’t believe that that was clear in the general order, the obligation to report?” the attorney then asked.

“For me, it wasn’t clear—that clear,” Hirokawa replied.

The ex-undersheriff maintains that at no point since 2015 did he read the content of the text messages or realize which ones Morrissey personally sent or responded to. When he sought the DSA’s political endorsement in late 2017, he said in last week’s interview that he never broached the subject with the embattled union president because he didn’t want to pressure Morrissey into making any self-incriminating statements.

“There’s still personnel rights, there was a gag order, all this stuff in regards to discussion or asking him questions,” Hirokawa said. “So [to ask], ‘were you responsible?’ That’s an admittance. ‘Should I be concerned?’ That’s an admittance. So you’re really getting into asking him to disclose on the side, which could be ... that’s ... a rep-client privilege.”

Despite numerous news articles from the time the Mercury News broke the story about the texting investigation in 2015 and up through this year, Hirokawa said he never considered whether any of this would come back to bite the DSA chief.

“I mean, if it backfires on Morrissey, it’s on him,” Hirokawa said. “We talked about this. ... Again, they [the members] voted him in. I think they voted him in a second time. Those stories are out. Why am I then going to him, questioning him about his personnel issues? What I do know is that I made no assurances or promises to Don Morrissey. ... no behind-the scenes, no quid pro quos with the individual Don Morrissey.”

The DSA spent $186,828.35 in independent expenditures to promote Hirokawa’s candidacy in the June 2018 primary.

At a county Democratic Club meeting in May, Stanford University law professor Michele Dauber asked Hirokawa about how he would handle a similar scandal as sheriff. Again, he responded by citing confidentiality and distancing himself from the Morrissey case.

“I had nothing to do with it,” he said. “I was not part of that.”

Dauber had to repeat her query.

“The question I asked was how do you think that should have been handled and how would you handle it if you were elected and something like that happens?”

“If somebody is sending racist texts while on duty, I believe they should be fired,” Hirokawa finally offered without naming Morrissey or saying how he’d deal with off-duty texts. “But again, I don’t have access to all the personnel records.”

Only in the past week did Hirokawa call out Morrissey. The day San Jose Inside published a story about an arbitration ruling that upheld his demotion, Hirokawa said he phoned the DSA president and urged him to step down.

Hirokawa says Sheriff Smith should have fired Morrissey if she felt so strongly about it. Smith said from the beginning that Morrissey should have no place in law enforcement. But concerns about her retaliating against Morrissey prompted the county to hire an independent investigator. When the disciplinary review board comprised of her command staff recommended demotion, the sheriff deferred and signed off.

“[T]he record evidence shows that the sheriff had no direct involvement in the disciplinary process resulting in [Morrissey’s] demotion,” attorney Morris Davis wrote in his arbitration opinion. “Thus, all of the statements attributed to others, regarding the sheriff’s purported dislike of [Morrissey] or implied animus, are unsubstantiated hearsay and therefore insufficient evidence to prove retaliation.”

As a high-ranking official in the Sheriff’s Office, Hirokawa had access to documents that would have shown the full context of the quoted texts and detailed Morrissey’s complicity. Even as a retiree and aspiring sheriff, he then could have read the news articles about the case and made a determination about whether to talk to Morrissey about it. But until recent days, Hirokawa’s response to the scandal consistently zeroed in on privacy rights as his main concern.

Morrissey’s baggage, which dates back to his first demotion in 2012 for surfing porn at work, sullies more than just his own reputation. He represents a union of comprised of hundreds of officers, some of whom say they will withdraw their membership unless Morrissey and his No. 2, Roger Winslow, resign.

It also affects Hirokawa’s election bid. Forcing Smith into a runoff for the first time in two decades was a huge win. But instead of riding high off that victory, Hirokawa went on the defensive—all because Morrissey put his personal battle to regain his rank above union members’ political interests.

In trying to get his sergeant stripes back, the labor leader unsealed his arbitration ruling and forced Hirokawa to publicly reckon with Morrissey’s checkered history. Now, the union has to answer to its members.

“In our law enforcement profession, we are no strangers to being tried in the court of public opinion before facts have a chance to be evaluated,” the DSA board wrote in an email to members Tuesday, promising to make Morrissey available for one-on-one meetings upon request. “This current environment is no different.”

Jennifer Wadsworth is the news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

25 Comments

  1. Looks to me like we have a situation of governmental agencies gone WILD! Not making yourself aware of racist homophobic texts that were condoned by Morrissey is no excuse for Hirokawa!

    We have a similar situation in Santa Clara Unified where former Board Member O’Neil sought to absolve herself and other Board members from culpability in sexual harassment going on in the high Schools cuz they just weren’t aware even though the students were handing them the information on a silver platter! Ignorance is not an acceptable excuse!

    We have systemic problems with all of the governmental agencies! These entitled Me First, Family First, Friends First scum bags could care less for their responsibility to take care of our community!

    It’s great that Jennifer is opening our eyes to the putrid goings on in our governmental agencies! It is a MASSIVE undertaking! I suggest we as citizens engage in a program like Kron 4 of Governmental Workers Acting Badly! We could build an APP and videotape, and share, and crowd source confrontation with our governmental goons!

    A little sunlight will go a long way to disinfect these vermin!

    Keep up the great reporting Jennifer!

    • Don Morrissey is funding nothing. The DSA BODY voted to fund the DSA PAC, run by DSA members who are no part of the Board. Seriously, the ignorant garbage you’re swallowing whole should embarrass you.

      The DSA PAC leadership has no intention nor reason to cave into this rotting tripe being put out by Wadsworth.

  2. Jennifer Wadsworth, Laurie Smith’s Campaign Communications Director, prints another hatchet job. Excuse my ignorance, but in journalism school if you write “John Hirokawa says,” shouldn’t the rest of that sentence be quoted? The title to this story is “Sheriff Candidate John Hirokawa says He Willfully Ignored Hateful Texts from Campaign Funder’s Biogoted Texts.”

    Is that an actual quote from him as the title indicates? Or is the title and its assertion as inflammatory and sensational as the chimpanzees depicted in the story graphic.

    The real takeaway from this story should be that John Hirokawa remained principled and even-keeled throughout this entire text case. He did not support the sharing of this information as recklessly as Laurie Smith. Hirokawa respected his role (or lack of a role) in this disciplinary action and did not seek/share information that was not necessary for him to know. Meanwhile, Laurie has no issue leaking personnel records to the media or anyone else of influence. L

  3. Bill- There was a court order that was ignored here when these texts were read and leaked to the press. Everyone involved in reading and leaking these files could have been brought up for violation of a court order.

    Another thing, Hirokawa did the right thing by not reading through these files. He could have been appointed to be a Hearing Officer. If that happened, Morrissey and others could have caused a stir and accused him of being prejudice towards them.

    I was reading up on the rights of freedom of speech of officers and found this: https://www.aclu-nj.org/theissues/policepractices/theacludefendscops/. Yeah, even cops have rights.

    • Maybe so. However all of these actions are artifacts of a governmental culture of Me First, Family First, and Friends First that must be totally transformed. Enough is Enough.

      • And ironically it’s all being used to back a sheriff who is so me first that she and her friends want us to focus on this rather than the fact her failed leadership has resulting in multiiple deaths and injury to others.

        But hey, who’s paying attention anymore with Yellow Jennifer Wadsworth on the job?

    • No, police officers can’t be racist, misogynist, and joking suggesting that they pay inmates for sex.

      That’s not acceptable behavior for a police officer, on or off duty.

      The idea that the man officially in charge of the jails and thus the supervisor of these men didn’t want to look at the evidence before making statements about the appropriateness of their punishment is mind boggling.

      I am not a big fan of Sheriff Smith, but what Hirokawa did here is not acceptable. And he has no taken responsibility for it either. Pass.

  4. Thanks for bringing this new information to light. Looks like Hirokawa looked the other way while a sick subculture bubbled up in the jails he ran. He didn’t do anything to reform the department he now wants to reform when he had the chance. Even after an inmate was beat to death for sport by guards who laughed about pulling inmates out of cells to “twist them up.”

    The union’s $186k thank you present is now an embarrassment and Hirokawa is belatedly trying to distance himself from the sloppy, discredited, porn-surfing Morrissey. Now that the DSA’s coffers have been drained—because Morrissey charged his legal battle to members—where will Hiro go for support? He only raised 17k between Jan. 1 and May 19, and 66k last year. These revelations about his failure to take decisive action will make raising money in the next 19 weeks even harder.

    First too severe, now not severe enough? This guy’s a real piece of work. And notice how his supporters have little to say in his defense—they just attack the media and blame everything on the sheriff (who btw has about a quarter mil to spend). Raise your hands if you think this race’s over.

    • Forgive me if I’m wrong, but the sheriff is IN CHARGE of the ENTIRE office. Why wouldn’t we blame her? It’s called leadership, and she’s offered this office none. It’s time for her to take responsibility for what her 20 years has brought to this office – massive failures, death, and archaic practices and equipment.

  5. Ms. Wadsworth,
    I’m sure you read these comments, and hope you at least take some of them to heart. Even though I’ve been an officer for over a decade, and have been personally subjected to unjust and deplorable treatment by Sheriff Smith and her administration, I STILL believe in the inherent goodness of people. That being said, how can you possibly ignore the multitude of lives destroyed by Smith, and the millions of dollars spent in unnecessary lawsuits all because people dared to have a differing opinion from her own? John Hirokawa is a fair, unbiased, and just man who prefers to look at the whole picture instead of letting personal feelings cloud his judgement. As a journalist, you have a moral and ethical obligation to report the truth and the truth alone. Instead you choose to very obviously skew your reporting towards an even more obvious political agenda. I’m sure at least part of you understands this. Why are you letting yourself be used by the Sheriff?

  6. It’s not over until the votes are in. While you entertain yourself with smoke screen articles the fact remains that The Board of Supervisors Run the Jails. They contract with the Sheriff to run the Jails. Laurie Smith is at the top of the ladder and responsible for the actions of her subordinates. If you want more of the same then just check the box for Laurie Smith.

    • So Joe, when is Salcido coming out for Hiro? Or is he still waiting to see just how much more Aunt Laurie will sweeten the pot for him? Yeah, rumors have reached me. Either Salcido steps forward for Hirokawa soon or he and everyone associated with him, like yourself, loses all credibility. Period.

      • This is the guy that hangs out with a child molester. He represents the dysfunctional culture problem in law enforcement: that deputies can do no wrong. If I were running I would not want his endorsement. he can’t deliver any votes.

  7. Wow! Jennifer Wadsworth has a brilliant way of twisting words and facts to suit her own narrative. I truly hope anyone reading this sees it for the obviously bias trash it really is. Your “brand” of reporting is exactly why this country has no faith in media. You should be ashamed of yourself!!!

  8. Good Lord! No, no he didn’t. WTF is wrong with you Jennifer?

    Oh, before I begin, our daily request for integrity (funny, right?): Pulcrano – disclosure in journalism regarding conflicts of interest is the standard of any decent media outlet – Has he, or is he dating Laurie Smith as several sources are claiming?

    1. The DSA is funding Hirokawa’s campaign, not Don Morrisey. The DSA PAC, which Don Morrissey is not even a part of is funding Hirokawa’s campaign.
    2. Unless he was part of the text threads, there was nothing for him to ignore.
    3. Unless he was part of the disciplinary process, there was nothing for him to ignore – HE. WAS. RETIRED.

    What part of these three points is too complex for you to grasp on an intellectually honest level, Jennifer?

    Or is your “wordsmith” writing this garbage and you’re allowing your name to be put to it?

  9. Jenn Wadsworth, lets reopen my daughter Audrie Pott case and reveal the domestic violence reports from the Pott family which included multiple DUI’S, domestic violence, emotional and psychological abuse inflicted upon my daughter by Lisa Pott, Shelia Pott, Lawrence Pott. A grand jury investigation is needed in my daughter’s case. View this video which was taken in Sheriff Laurie Smith last publuc debate. https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10158016164279498&id=680619497

  10. Smoke screens cannot hide the corruption of Sheriff Laurie Smith administration. We must have law enforcement be transparent, avoid corruption, and protect our citizens, families, and innocent children!!

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