It's understandable that Gates wouldn't want the public to know what he did with its money. Take the 1980s case of Santa Ana College instructor Wright, a former federal law-enforcement officer who was planning to run for sheriff. On the day he announced his candidacy, an unknown gunman's shot narrowly missed Wright's face while he was standing in his back yard, talking to a neighbor. (There has been no evidence that Gates was connected to the incident.)Wright also found himself the recipient of a blistering letter from Gates and was the subject of illegal police surveillance. In 1986, a judge later dismissed Wright's harassment claims after Gates denied under oath any involvement or responsibility. One year later, Gates' intelligence unit admitted to the court that they had possession of at least one illegal audio tape deputies made of Wright. Gates and county officials quickly cut off any probe of the intelligence unit by immediately forking over $375,000 to settle the case. Over the years, taxpayers have shelled out millions of dollars for verdicts or pre-trial settlements of claims involving allegations of Sheriff's Department incompetence and corruption.
Gates, who lives in San Juan Capistrano, didn't save all of his attention for enemies. He liked to reward his friends, many of whom are the area's largest real-estate developers. For example, he used his high public-opinion poll numbers to serve as a spokesman for the developers when they wanted voters to increase sales taxes and when they wanted to kill a grassroots slow-growth initiative. And the developers reciprocated generously with the county's most powerful law-enforcement officer. Despite two decades on a public salary, Gates managed--through behind-the-scenes assistance from developers--to build an impressive, multimillion-dollar real-estate portfolio. A Register investigative reporter wrote in 1989 that Gates routinely spent hours of each workday trying to make private business deals. (The reporter claimed--and evidently had proof to back it up--that he was targeted with hostile police surveillance, monitored telephone calls and a smear campaign, but a judge threw the case out on a technicality.)
On Jan. 7, the Times' Esther Schrader reported that 850 people--the county's elite, we're sure--attended Gates' emotional retirement party at an Irvine hotel. The ex-sheriff said he might work for the Irvine Co., the county's biggest real-estate developer, and was presented with a saddle. The moment was apparently too much for Schrader to ignore. "If anyone there didn't think Gates is a big man in the saddle," she wrote, "they weren't talking."