Saddle Sores

Just-retired Orange County Sheriff-Coroner Brad Gates was "one tough hombre . . . [a] cowboy at heart . . . riding high in the saddle . . . as the sun sets on his career," the Los Angeles Times observed on Jan. 1. Five days earlier, The Orange County Register wrote: "Brad Gates will [soon] be just another cowboy. He'll relinquish his gun and his badge and his legacy to a new sheriff. . . . That sound you hear is spurs jingling and a heart breaking." In case Reg readers missed the point, the paper noted, "The aura of the Wild West clings to Gates like prairie dust to a cowpoke."

Or does the overblown frontier imagery cling to Gates like stink on shit? We'd need to flip a coin to determine which is more absurd: Gates' spaghetti-Western-fueled public image or the local media's laughable advancement of it.

For all of the Wild West references, both daily papers missed the most obvious. Surely a real cowboy would have stood tall and fought a threat to his authority, integrity and competence. Picture Dodge City, 1875. A crowd empties from a saloon. Two angry men face each other from 20 paces. Sweaty trigger fingers itch for their holstered six shooters. Draw!

Now picture Santa Ana, the 1990s. OC Marshal Mike Carona criticizes Gates' handling of the Sheriff's Department. Gates responds by trying to wrest control of the Marshal's Department from Carona. Carona responds by publicly announcing his intention to run for Gates' office.

In this, the final test of his 24-year career, however, Gates backed down. He was more Dr. Smith--the cowering, fearful character from Lost in Space ("Oh, deaaar!")--than John Wayne in Rio Bravo. Rather than go mano a mano with hard-charging, bitter rival Carona, the sheriff hid safely in his Santa Ana government office, where--ironically--a portrait of Wayne hung. Instead of cocking his head, crossing his arms, reclining with his boots on the desk and telling Carona to bring it on, Gates was (an ally reportedly said) a "basket case" about his first serious electoral challenge. The no-fear cowboy bullshit evaporated publicly when a wide-eyed Gates tried to send subordinates (like Deputy Sheriff Doug Storm) out to fight Carona's eventually successful onslaught. It might have made the Duke puke.

Last week, an assistant sheriff said his old boss "took this organization to places where it wouldn't have gone without him." Gates would certainly agree. If you asked the ex-sheriff, he'd tell you that he was a "white hat," a good ol' boy battling for the right cause. Or was that the white cause? Evidence: an elderly man who suffered from severe hand tremors went to the sheriff's office in the early 1980s. He wanted a concealed-weapon permit (CWP) because, he wrote on the application, there were "too many niggers and Mexicans" in his neighborhood. Without explanation, Gates overruled a deputy's sober decision to block the request.

The Gates legacy is deeper than possible rank racism. He used his office to routinely grant special favors to friends and business associates. According to Santa Ana College instructor George Wright's The Twisted Badge, Gates issued 12 questionable CWPs to people living outside the Sheriff's Department's jurisdiction; gave 132 CWPs to people with criminal-arrest records ranging from "multiple drunk[en]-driving stops to possession of explosives to sex crimes"; and--ignoring state-mandated background checks --handed permits to more than 100 of his campaign contributors. In some cases, contributors got their permits on the same day they made contributions.

There were other glaring blemishes on Gates' record. Through much of his reign, critics said the county's jail system was more pathetic and mismanaged than the pathetic and mismanaged Los Angeles County system. And who could forget last July's embarrassing revelation that a murder suspect had been running a major crime ring--orchestrating murder schemes as well as firearms and counterfeiting deals--from his Orange County jail cell?

Then there were the well-publicized, notorious sex scandals. Just last year, for example, six female employees sued the department for harassment, including sexual assault.

Even his fans admit that Gates is a guy who loved raw power--or more precisely, a guy who loved to wield government power, a scary thought about an egotistical politician with a badge, a gun, a jail, 2,744 employees and a $215 million annual budget. Although a Times source perplexingly referred to him as "Orange County's John Wayne" (even though there had been a real one living in Newport Beach), a more fitting comparison would have been "Orange County's J. Edgar Hoover." While Gates did not share the dead FBI director's reported predilection for poodles, dresses and gay sex, the sheriff was--like Hoover--a ruthless empire builder who formed an ultrasecretive intelligence (read: spy) unit that inspired fear in elected officials throughout the county.

Whatever personal dirt Gates may have collected over the years on those politicians who approved his budgets and enhanced his authority is not known. What is known, however, is that when the sheriff spoke, his supposed bosses--the Orange County Board of Supervisors--jumped. Recently retired Supervisor Bill Steiner said of Gates: "Some people say you should never argue with someone who has a gun and a badge. . . . Generally speaking, it's either Brad's way or the highway." At the county Hall of Administration, he was known as "King Brad." Gates wanted policing control at John Wayne Airport; he got it. Gates wanted to run the powerful Local Agency Formation Commission, which renders decisions on which plots of unincorporated land can be annexed by which municipalities; he got it. Gates wanted expensive new cars in the middle of the county's $1.7 billion bankruptcy crisis; he got them. Gates wanted the Newport Beach Harbor Patrol to report to him; he got it. Gates demanded that supervisors add hundreds of additional employees to his staff at a time when his turf was shrinking; he got it. As late as last year, Gates' department was the only county agency effectively exempt from having to justify in detail its requests for massive expenditures of taxpayer dollars.

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."

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