Deep within the bowels of Orange County law enforcement circles today, a secret ballot vote will be announced regarding the popularity of Mike Major, the acting chief of the district attorney's bureau of investigation since March. On the surface, the non-public contest might deserve little attention. Cops are all pals, right?
Besides strong personalities, there are factions within factions in every law enforcement department. This is true at the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs (AOCDS), which is comprised of sheriff's deputies and DA investigators. Up until two months ago, it's safe to say that AOCDS president Wayne J. Quint and Mark Nichols, its general manager, enjoyed the fact that Don Blankenship, one of their pals and the former president of the Santa Ana police officer's union, headed the DA's bureau of investigation.
But Blankenship left the job suddenly in March, either because of a nagging medical condition (his public story) or dissatisfaction with his performance that forced his ouster (a story circulating around the DA's office). In the wake of Blankenship's departure, DA Tony Rackauckas named Major the bureau's acting chief.
The move would seem non-controversial. Major was Blankenship's second in command. Having launched his career at Fountain Valley PD in 1980 and later jumping to the DA's bureau as a detective, his skills have repeatedly been legitimized by the fact that he's often been chosen to direct key investigations. Multiple sources tell me that Major's work in practically every phases of DA investigations has been outstanding.
But union officials apparently aren't happy. Two weeks ago, AOCDS mailed ballots to its DA investigator membership seeking a referendum on Major's popularity. The "advisory survey" asks three simple questions:
--Should the next chief be selected from within the bureau?
--If the selection comes from within the bureau please rank the top three candidates in order of preference:
*Paul Bartlett, commander
*Doug Kennedy, commander
*Mike Major, acting chief
*Jeff McLaughlin, commander
*John Santy, commander
--Should Chief Blankenship's health allow, would you support his return as bureau chief?
The ballot noted at the bottom that "all responses will remain strictly confidential."
Of course, who will lead the bureau is solely Rackauckas' decision and, while the DA says he respects the right of the union to poll its membership on any topic, he didn't ask for a poll of Major's popularity. Indeed, Rackauckas tells me that the union promised him that it would only survey DA investigators on the "general characteristics" they want in a chief.
But the ballot is a not so subtle referendum on Major, who is not viewed as a Blankenship ally. Some investigators I interviewed believe that union boss Quint and the AOCDS leadership want Kennedy, a Blankenship buddy, to leap over Major and assume command. In fact, the union placed the name of at least one of the mentioned candidates on the ballot though he specifically asked them not to do so, according to multiple sources.
If it accomplishes nothing else, the survey has intensified divisions within the bureau, I'm told.
Another element at play is the current battle between the deputies union and Rackauckas over alleged testi-lying by deputies during a recent criminal trial against a veteran deputy who fired his Taser twice at a handcuffed suspect who was sitting in the back of a patrol car. The DA's office lost the case, blamed dishonest deputy witnesses and referenced a "code of silence" within Orange County Sheriff's Department ranks. AOCSD membership went bananas over the accusations and demanded that Rackauckas fire his media spokeswoman, Susan Kang Schroeder, because she publicly slammed deputies for sabotaging their excessive force case. Yesterday, the DA said he backed Schroeder's statements.
Rackauckas also backs Major.
"Mike has a big job to do," said Rackauckas this morning. "And he's been doing a great job at it."
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What impact will the union vote have?
"I'll listen to what they have to say, but I don't see this [naming the next official chief] as a popularity contest. I'm going to put the best interests of the office first."
Quint, who did not respond to a message seeking comment, is scheduled to open the ballots at 5:05 p.m.
--R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly