Campaigning to become the sheriff of Orange County in 1998, Mike Carona overcame résumé shortcomings from a glorified bailiff’s job by presenting himself as a law-enforcement reformer with squeaky-clean instincts and an appreciation of investigative journalism. Carona cold-called OC Weekly a year earlier to praise my criticism of Mike Capizzi, the then-district attorney who promised he’d share grand jury transcripts of how Merrill Lynch slyly profited from the county’s $1.6 billion bankruptcy before deciding to conceal the record. A decade later, Carona found himself indicted by a federal grand jury for corruption that earned him a 66-month prison term. He’d named Don Haidl—a wealthy, booze-guzzling, foul-mouthed Rancho Cucamonga used-car salesman without a minute of police training—as an assistant sheriff at a department with 4,500 employees and an annual budget topping $700 million. At the sheriff’s corruption trial, Haidl explained he’d grabbed the No. 2 spot by handing Carona bundles of cash, flying him around California in his private plane, picking up bar tabs, paying for custom-made suits and Las Vegas casino excursions, and dining him on his Newport Beach-based yacht.
Carona’s successor, Sandra Hutchens, was expected to be the antidote for an agency that employed numerous outstanding deputies but had become an ethical swamp because of leadership failures. County officials felt palpable relief, thinking the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) couldn’t sink any lower because, at the very least, everyone knew she wouldn’t be trolling bars, looking for easy chicks while on duty or sending subordinates greeting cards referring to her anatomical “Little Sheriff.” (See, “Dong? Schlong? Peter? Pecker? Wiener?,” OC Weekly, May 17, 2006.) During a career at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Hutchens rose through the ranks, despite a controversial 1980 lethal shooting that forced taxpayers to pay the dead man’s family $1.4 million. She eventually served as LA Sheriff Lee Baca’s executive assistant and chief of his Office of Homeland Security. (Baca resigned two years ago and is currently facing federal corruption charges.) Winning the 2008 OC Board of Supervisors’ appointment to finish Carona’s term, Hutchens guaranteed she’d restore public trust. She also promised to fire deputies caught lying to cover up corruption. In her rookie year, she told me she expected journalists to hold her accountable, observing, “People—deputies and the public—depend on me to do the right thing.”
Time has proven Hutchens’ assertions shallow. During her administration, irrefutable evidence emerged, detailing how OCSD conducted unconstitutional scams with confidential informants to secretly help District Attorney Tony Rackauckas win cases. Deputies who’ve committed perjury on the witness stand and hidden or destroyed evidence—even in death-penalty cases—have gone unpunished. For 201 weeks, this sheriff has not fully complied with discovery orders by Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals in People v. Scott Dekraai. Ponder the audacity of Hutchens pontificating righteously while spending more than 33,840 hours telling a judge she is genuinely searching for the requested agency records in what is infamously known across the nation as the Orange County jailhouse-snitch scandal. Weeks ago, a frustrated Goethals asked the sheriff’s lawyers in the County Counsel’s office when he could “expect compliance” and received the bureaucratic equivalent of a non-answer.
Dec. 5 saw the latest embarrassment for Hutchens; Goethals gave reporters access to 242 pages from a long-hidden “Special Handling Log” documenting OCSD inmate movements, department “capers” and snitch activities from 2008 to 2013. Many entries are mundane, but others provide insight into various scams deputies ran to illegally obtain evidence against in-custody, pretrial defendants. Records show officers created informant tanks and enticements for snitches to befriend and later question government targets about their charges and defense strategies; planted narcotics and syringes on informants to trick other inmates into believing the rats weren’t acting as OCSD agents; shredded evidence tied to high-profile cases without anybody’s knowledge; and worked with prosecutors and local police agencies to wire cells with recording devices, evidence that has been largely concealed from defense attorneys.
As I’ve previously reported, one of the last notes in the log is perhaps the most damning. Written within days of Goethals’ January 2013 discovery orders in Dekraai, an entry shows deputies suddenly decided after five years to delete the Special Handling Log’s name and to internally label future information as a database no defense lawyer or judge could identify for discovery orders: an “Important Information Sharing Only” document. The ruse has worked so far. In August, an OCSD spokesman told Huffington Post‘s Matt Ferner that Hutchens doesn’t know why the log disappeared, she truly want to learn what happened and remains baffled about the location of log-type records after the un-naming decision. How many years are needed for a sheriff in a paramilitary outfit to get answers from subordinates?
To Scott Sanders, the assistant public defender who discovered the scandal, Hutchens’ antics have grown tiresome. Sanders learned in late 2014 that the department had been hiding from him a records system called TRED, which contains evidence contradictory to law enforcement’s narratives in dozens of criminal cases, including Dekraai. Then, after last February’s inadvertent revelation of a second hidden system, the log, Hutchens claimed those records, which were stored on OCSD computers by on-duty deputies, weren’t official and, therefore, shouldn’t be surrendered. When the judge hinted in August he would not likely seal all 1,157 pages of the log from public consumption, the sheriff flip-flopped, arguing the database was critical to daily jail operations, that mayhem and murders would result if discovered, and that she was entitled to an official government-information “privilege” to keep it secret. Her tap-dancing didn’t impress Goethals or the California Court of Appeal.
As journalists thumbed through the log on Dec. 5, Hutchens issued a defensive press statement stringing together irrelevant facts and duplicitous omissions to appear conscientious. The sheriff labeled her lengthy failure to obey Goethals as a “methodical and coordinated endeavor” to be helpful. “The members of OCSD and my leadership team remain committed to searching for and providing documents that are responsive to discovery requests and subpoenas,” she claimed.
Hutchens also asserts the scandal prompted OCSD reforms. For example, she dissolved the Special Handling Unit and, in September, launched the Custody Intelligence Unit, which, among numerous tasks, will manage informants. At least the sheriff is no longer lying about the existence of her agency’s C.I. program. In one effort to derail scandal revelations in the early days, she had Sergeant Brent Benson send Goethals a sworn declaration that Sanders’ subpoena for snitch-related evidence sought nonexistent material. Benson wrote on Aug. 27, 2014, “Upon information and belief, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department has no responsive records . . . because there is no jailhouse-informant program.” Wisely without swearing under oath, Hutchens backed identical false statements as late as this August.
I’m not certain if Carona and Hutchens entered office predisposed to corruption. Maybe the job naturally warps good people by giving them control over state-backed power; massive budgets; thousands of armed, saluting employees; high-tech spy equipment galore; helicopters and planes; plus access to ultra-wealthy businessmen seeking friendships. Whatever the answer, it’s time for this failed sheriff to go.
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; earned six dozen other reporting awards; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; featured in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.