Michael J. Schroeder, the legendary master of Orange County’s cutthroat politics (when he’s not running his Santa Ana chiropractic-insurance company), must have sighed in relief last month while he was on the Stockholm leg of his European vacation. Up until that point, Schroeder’s nightmare scenario was coming true: His candidate, Craig Hunter, looked destined for a last-place finish in the race for sheriff in the June 8 election. Hunter, Anaheim’s deputy police chief, had raised the lowest amount of contributions, struggled to rally crowds, failed to capture the local GOP endorsement despite Schroeder’s influence there and placed last in every known poll. Even an effort to trip Bill Hunt’s candidacy by linking him to a 7-year-old pot-bust-gone-wrong scandal had fizzled. Entering the last six weeks of the contest to control California’s second-largest police agency, it looked probable that Hunt, a former sheriff’s lieutenant turned private investigator, and appointed Sheriff Sandra Hutchens would face each other in a November runoff.
But then, on May 2, the most unlikely person unwittingly handed Schroeder a gift that brought Hunter’s gasping campaign back to life: Hunt himself.
Schroeder, a Republican-establishment heavyweight with a long history of destroying the careers of political enemies, and Hunt, a rebellious Republican outsider, aren’t pals. And it isn’t that one is a red-wine connoisseur while the other favors tequila shots. In 2006, Hunt didn’t just run against his then-boss, Sheriff Mike Carona, a glorified bailiff who’d never made an arrest before his ascension; he also called Carona, who was Schroeder’s buddy, a scoundrel unfit to be OC’s top cop. Thanks in part to Schroeder’s work, Carona narrowly escaped a runoff with Hunt. The following year, IRS and FBI agents arrested Carona, and he resigned; in early 2009, a jury convicted him of sabotaging a federal-grand-jury-probing police-corruption investigation. In June 2008, the county’s Board of Supervisors bypassed Hunt and appointed Hutchens, a retired Los Angeles County Sheriff’s official, to fill the final two years on Carona’s term.
With that history in mind, it may seem odd that Hunt agreed to meet Schroeder prior to the present race. Schroeder, Hunt told me, pressed him to endorse Paul Walters as the sole challenger to Hutchens. But Hunt and Walters—the accomplished, longtime Santa Ana police chief—loathe each other. Their feud intensified in 2008 when someone circulated Walters’ income-tax returns while both men sought appointment to replace Carona. Hunt says he told Schroeder he intended to run again. (Schroeder refuses to comment on these negotiations.) Throughout 2009, the non-political Walters contemplated running, but—leery of a bruising three-way race—decided against it. Last fall, Schroeder turned to Hunter, a political neophyte but a solid law-enforcement professional.
Fast-forward to May 1. By conventional wisdom, Hutchens and Hunt held the top two spots. But the scenario grew murkier, at least behind the scenes, the following day. Having been hired for $700 by defense lawyer Rick Nicol to perform private-investigation work on an attempted-robbery case against defendant Victor Manuel Lua, Hunt attended Lua’s May 2 preliminary hearing. According to Santa Ana police, Lua not only committed the crime, but he is also a member of F Troop, one of Santa Ana’s most lethal street gangs. Hunt investigated the case and believes that facts prove the victim’s identification of Lua as the perpetrator is mistaken. He also insists that the tattoo-free Lua, 20, is not a gang member, but rather a gainfully employed citizen. Moreover, according to sources, Lua’s rap sheet is thin. His only known crime happened when he was a juvenile: occupying the front passenger seat of a moving vehicle when someone in the rear seats tossed out an illegal weapon.
“You would think our law-enforcement community would want to get the guilty guy, not put away an innocent man based on a faulty ID by a witness,” Hunt told me about the robbery case. “I believe in everyone’s constitutional rights—even for a poor, Latino kid in Santa Ana. Nothing I’ve done is unethical, unreasonable or wrong.”
But not everyone viewed Hunt’s act as heroic. Inside the courthouse, word among bailiffs rapidly spread that Hunt had sat at Lua’s defense table. One of the recipients of the news that day was on the other side of the planet in Stockholm with her husband: Susan Kang Schroeder, chief of staff to District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and wife of Mike Schroeder.
“Honestly, I didn’t think much of it at the time,” she recently recalled. “But I started to think about it: Hunt is running for sheriff. Why is he helping a dangerous gang member? I’m all for Mr. Lua getting an excellent defense, but the issue is: Can Mr. Hunt run for sheriff while helping a gang member? I don’t think so.”
The stage was set for a whopper of a negative campaign hit on Hunt, who was oblivious to the coming public-relations nightmare. Indeed, Hunt told me, while he has read WhoisCraigHunter.com throughout the race, he didn’t necessarily take its warnings seriously. The feisty blog, which is friendly to Hunt’s campaign, had repeatedly predicted the Schroeders would use their influence with KCBS-TV reporter Dave Lopez and staff members at The Orange County Register to launch a last-minute smear campaign against Hunt.
“It sounded interesting, but I wasn’t worried about it,” said Hunt, who has the endorsement of the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs and routinely wins over crowds at public events. “Then I get a call from Lopez, who tried to wreck my 2006 campaign for the Schroeders, and I said to myself, ‘Wow, the WhoisCraigHunter.com folks were right.’”
On May 24, I broke the news that a union representing Santa Ana cops had yanked its Hunt endorsement because of the Lua case. Later that day, Lopez weighed in. His report, which led the 6 o’clock news in the massive LA-OC television market, wasn’t flattering about Hunt.
“I watch Lopez’s piece, and I see the face of Susan Kang Schroeder talking, and then I see Paul Walters talking,” said Hunt, who was also interviewed for the piece. “Amazing. The Schroeders got their hit piece. They fabricated an issue, and then got a reporter who would relay that fabrication to the public. Lua is not guilty of that robbery. Lopez didn’t even bother to say that the Schroeders are backing Hunter and Walters is backing Hutchens. He wanted people to think he’d found two neutral, objective sources for his hit piece. What a joke!”
When I reached Lopez, with whom I’ve worked in tandem on several occasions, he said that his station doesn’t allow him to comment on stories, but he did offer that Hunt’s complaints are “too ridiculous to comment on.”
Nicol, Lua’s lawyer and a company commander in the U.S. Army reserve, defends Hunt’s role in the case.
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“I called Bill and told him I believe that this client, Lua, is innocent,” Nicol said. “Bill has an excellent reputation for doing great PI work. He said he’d check it out. After looking at all the facts, he said, ‘This kid is innocent, and he’s not a gang member.’ In more than 90 percent of the cases I’ve hired Bill, he’s come back and said, ‘Your client is guilty. You better plead him out.’ Bill tells it like it is.”
Hunt’s conspiracy insinuations make Susan Kang Schroeder laugh.
“I wasn’t behind anything,” she said. “I did what I always do. I answered a reporter’s questions about a case. It’s that simple. Bill Hunt needs to own up to his actions.”