The DA's report is a stunning indictment of the Mike Carona-run jails—well, except for the indictment part
During their work in 2006—for which they took a whopping $15.8 million in overtime compensation—Orange County jail deputies routinely slept on the job, played electronic games, watched television and movies, operated personal businesses, unnecessarily fired weapons at inmates sitting on toilets, chatted on the telephone, left to work out at gyms, surfed the Internet, read books, sent text messages to girlfriends, allowed—no, encouraged—inmate-on-inmate violence, ignored medical emergencies, refused to perform basic inspections for entire shifts, and routinely doctored official logs to mask incompetence.
Deputies weren't lazy all the time. They occasionally awoke to pulverize handcuffed citizens entering jail on misdemeanor charges—insisting the bloody, bone-cracking events were always self-defense. They had to do something, I guess, to feel like they'd earned their publicly financed paychecks on the way to generous retirement packages that begin at the spry age of 50.
Three years ago, I wrote a series of articles alerting the public to the jailhouse mess. Establishment players hissed. Deputies booed. Then-Sheriff Mike Carona literally rolled his eyes. But this week, we learned I hadn't gone far enough.
On Monday, following a lengthy grand-jury investigation of the November 2006 murder of an in-custody defendant, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas released an 86-page report that included this admission from an Orange County Sheriff's Department employee: The goal of jail deputies has been to do the "least [amount of work] possible."
Much of the discussion at Rackauckas' press conference focused on the DA's "disappointment" about jail deputy work habits; his "shock" at jail culture; and convoluted explanations as to why tainted deputies narrowly escaped murder, perjury, assault, dereliction-of-duty or gross-negligence charges. I let that go on for about 25 minutes before nailing the real culprit: our county's Master of Disasters.
"How did Mike Carona contribute to the grand jury's investigation?" I asked. The DA stood there bug-eyed, and then smiled. He's no Carona fan. A member of the grand jury, who was present and sitting in the front row, snickered.
"You can look at the transcripts," Rackauckas replied. "Mike Carona took the Fifth."
Formerly "America's Sheriff," a potential U.S. Senate challenger to Barbara Boxer, a proposed Arnold Schwarzenegger running mate and the most popular politician in OC, Carona finds himself indicted by the FBI in a bribery scheme, forced from office, disgraced as a two-faced liar and now, fittingly, a certifiable coward.
As cowards are apt to do, Carona gets others to do his dirty work. In the past, George Jaramillo played bad cop for him. In recent years, assistant sheriffs Jo Ann Galisky and Steve Bishop gladly became his stooges.
Rackauckas' report details how the Carona/Galisky/Bishop team blatantly lied to the grand jury probing the 2006 jailhouse murder of John Chamberlain (see Nick Schou's "Blind Spot," March 30, 2007, and "I Lit the Fire," April 4, for the gruesome details of that crime), insisted that there was no conflict of interest by the sheriff's department investigating itself in the case, allegedly "lost" key personnel records, refused to comply with subpoenas, deleted portions of documents they didn't want to share, spied on grand-jury proceedings and encouraged deputies to obfuscate the truth when possible.
You might think that such actions constitute potential crimes. Gil Reza of the Los Angeles Times did. During the press conference, Reza repeatedly grilled Rackauckas why not a single OCSD employee faces even minor contempt-of-court charges.
"We just didn't have the specifics to bring charges," the DA offered.
Reza, a tough, veteran journalist, didn't look convinced. He pressed. Rackauckas suggested the bad deputies weren't getting away scot-free.
"They're named in the transcripts, and they could lose their jobs," he said.
Reza still didn't look impressed.
The DA switched tacks. "Look, we need to figure out a way to get the deputies to follow" the existing sheriff's department policies, he said. "If they're followed, things will be a lot better."
How about this: Could it be that law-enforcement officers are hesitant to charge fellow officers with crimes?
Acting Sheriff Jack Anderson told me not to worry. He believes the DA's report on OC jail culture is accurate, if limited to a small group of rogue deputies.
"I'm appalled," said Anderson, who took command of the state's second-largest sheriff's department after Carona resigned in January. "Now that I'm aware of this, it's over. It's a failure to supervise, a failure to manage. Obviously, some people have been getting paid to do nothing. You won't believe how hard I'm going to chase people down."
But there's already resistance to Anderson's reform attempts. He recently asked 204 jail deputies if they were willing to shift to patrol duty. About 190 said "no, thanks." They preferred to stay in the jails, a sure indication it's a cushier job than deputies like to depict to outsiders.
If he's able to make sweeping, positive changes quickly, Anderson could emerge as the person the county's Board of Supervisors selects in June to lead the OCSD until the 2010 elections. At a Tuesday board meeting, he announced he'd asked the FBI to join his probe of the jail and already placed five deputies on administrative leave.
"Hey, I'm looking forward to all of this," he said. "We're going to make this department better. We're going to be accountable to the public, and we're going to do it immediately. Deputies who break the rules now are going to face substantial discipline."
Well, at least the rhetoric coming out of OCSD has changed. For example, take the case of an unsung hero in all of this. Well before I began snooping around the jail situation, reporter Aldrin Brown at The Orange County Register had already made himself an expert on the OC jails. He knew the players. He knew the issues. He wasn't afraid of the usual OCSD flak when facing scrutiny.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
In 2004, Brown tried to publish what would have been the first real wake-up call for the public about our jails. Carona fought vigorously to block the story, according to multiple sources at the paper. With all the sincerity he could muster, the sheriff said he wouldn't tolerate shenanigans in his jails. His staff mocked jailhouse-abuse reports as "science fiction."
The lobbying succeeded. Register management—known at the time to be sympathetic to Carona's political rise—killed the project. Brown soon left to take an editor's job in Tennessee. His unpublished work sat collecting dust, making the county's largest daily paper a co-conspirator.
Of course, Carona and the Register had accomplices. Year after year, OC's regularly impaneled grand juries (the one handling the Chamberlain death was a separate panel) ducked their duty to inspect the local jail system for corruption. At the very time that jail deputies shamelessly abused their posts, the 2005-2006 grand jury commended these scoundrels for "their dedication and professionalism."