Incoming OC Sheriff Plans Continuation of Predecessor’s Gross Corruption

Newly-elected Sheriff Don Barnes lands his first starring role in a horror flick (Art design by R. Scott Moxley / Photo illustration by Richie Beckman)

Political earthquakes rarely shake Orange County. Twenty-two years ago, Democrat Loretta Sanchez toppled legendary conservative icon Bob Dornan, who’d trounced a series of challengers since the 1970s. Iron-fisted Irvine political boss Larry Agran, once the progressive darling who ran against Bill Clinton in 1992’s primaries, lost his decade-old control of City Hall four years ago, after misusing hundreds of millions of dollars at the Great Park, one of Southern California’s largest public-works projects.

However, none of those noteworthy events comes close to the results of this November’s election. Democrats now occupy all seven of the county’s congressional seats, a feat no one could have predicted when, thanks to the Village Voice in New York, the Weekly launched in 1995. While Harley Rouda deserves national media attention for booting crusty, 30-year incumbent Dana Rohrabacher, he wasn’t the biggest winner. Todd Spitzer crushed Tony Rackauckas, who has presided over a district attorney’s office too often prone to lax ethical standards or outright duplicity.

It would be easy to celebrate a new day in local law enforcement and hope all is now well. That’s what many of us do, right? Vote, watch returns, then tune out until the next election. Such a mindset is tempting given the soothing departure of Rackauckas, a DA who lobbied for the prison release of two serial killers, protected dirty businessmen who contributed to his campaigns and kept a 14-year-old boy in jail for two years knowing he was innocent in a murder case. But there remains a festering government cesspool on our landscape.

The same nationally embarrassing scandals that wrecked Rackauckas’ reputation also soiled Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, who replaced prison-bound Mike Carona in 2008. Hutchens came into office promising an end of corruption inside the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD). Yet, her 10 years in power over the agency with a $1 billion annual budget allowed transgressions such as using excessive force, falsifying reports, hiding exculpatory evidence, committing perjury, sexually assaulting citizens while on duty, and—two the sheriff owns herself—repeatedly disobeying lawfully issued court orders and promoting deputies with knowledge of internal hanky-panky just before they hit the witness stand.

Hutchens didn’t face re-election in November, choosing instead to retire. But she hasn’t gone quietly. Though haggard-looking, she campaigned for Rackauckas, who couldn’t bring himself to charge a slew of deputies with perjury in felony trials and routinely sanctioned lethal force against unarmed citizens. She also supported her trusty assistant, Don Barnes, as a fitting substitute. Is there a loyalty pact among bureaucratic con artists? Barnes, of course, backed Rackauckas, too. The two men even aired an awkward, pre-election TV ad together.

Let’s assume that Spitzer, who ran vocally against his nemesis’ prosecutorial corruption, is a man of his word and manages to act ethically. Half of Orange County’s major law-enforcement operations will still remain tainted. That’s not cynical, just an ugly fact. Barnes, who more than a handful of deputies believe ass-kissed his way to the top, has been unambiguous. He will act as a continuation of his warped predecessor’s mindset.

Before we sit with popcorn for Hutchens II, let’s ponder the final chapter of the current sheriff’s era. In October, she saw a video of a deputy telling one story about using force on an unarmed, intoxicated suspect in Stanton and then him writing a different, self-serving version in his report. Not surprisingly, Hutchens said, “I stand 100 percent behind my deputy.” She was equally supportive of other on-the-scene deputies, including one who joked about the violence and still another who turned off an audio recording device so officers could get their stories straight.

But the sheriff’s latest known major, constitution-trampling scandal is the secret recordings of pretrial inmates’ calls to their attorneys. Information gleaned from those supposed protected conversations can rob unwitting defendants of their right to fair trials for, by example, discovering defense strategies. Hutchens has repeatedly placed all the blame on Global Tel*Link (GTL), the corporate contractor that provides the jailhouse phone system and all of its investigatory trappings. Once again, she insists her deputies, who—unlike GTL employees—have a keen interest in the calls’ contents, did done nothing wrong.

Anyone who has followed the sheriff’s career in OC knows her m.o.: Keep the public clueless about cheating. Withhold as much information as possible after it leaks. Angrily deny wrongdoing. Release additional damning facts only when forced by judges, and then find a scapegoat.

In August—after learning about it in June—Hutchens’ conceded OCSD possessed 1,079 recorded attorney-client calls but accessed them only 89 times. The records system didn’t change, but on Nov. 9, the sheriff reluctantly admitted those numbers were wrong. Now, her department says it recorded 4,356 calls and accessed conversations 347 times. Who really trusts this latest accounting either?

If there is anything worse than recording attorney-client calls, it’s listening to them. But a pouting-faced Hutchens loves to play the victim card. She issued a press release about the corrected numbers, stating, “We anticipate [our forced admission] will be exploited by some to perpetuate an anti-law-enforcement narrative.”

CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.

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