He once dreamed of becoming California's first Latino governor. He finagled an improbable transition from Garden Grove police sergeant to the powerful No. 2 post at the Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD). He even managed to create a fan club within the George W. Bush White House. But late Monday afternoon, ex-Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo discovered there are consequences to unbridled ambition: a 27-month federal prison sentence and the forfeiture of at least $233,000.
"I am here to say that I am profoundly sorry for what I have done," a weepy Jaramillo (pictured on the left with Sheriff Mike Carona) told U.S. District Judge Andrew J. Guilford before punishment was announced in the bribery case against him. "My cavalier, irresponsible, lackadaisical mode of operation while sitting in a position of public trust was criminal. I need to apologize publicly. I was not raised to violate the law. . . . I blame no one for the circumstances I am in."
But if Jaramillo, who considers himself an expert strategist, thought his words would seal a sweetheart deal that would keep him out of prison in exchange for home confinement, he was terribly misguided. Indeed, the hearing wowed those in attendance (including six reporters) by how quickly Jaramillo and his legal team, headed by Brent Romney, seemed to argue themselves out of the relatively good graces of federal prosecutor Brett Sagel. The Jaramillo strategy combined two parts arrogance and one part contrition, a doomed recipe to anyone awake.
Prior to the hearing, it was Sagel who generously recommended that Jaramillo get a whopping six-point downward departure in the sentencing guidelines based on his willingness to accept responsibility for his crimes and his cooperation for helping to bring down the degenerate former sheriff. Incredibly, though, the defense attacked Sagel in its sentencing brief, calling him a liar and adopting a disrespectful tone that preposterously implied Jaramillo was ethically superior to the assistant United States attorney. At the end of the defense presentations, Sagel stood up, shook his head and said, "I no longer believe he's entitled to a downward departure of all six levels. . . . He still thinks the law applies to everyone but him."
Jaramillo's eyes widened, and he rapidly rubbed his lips and chin with the fingers on his right hand. Sagel compared the ex-assistant sheriff to a child who kills his parents, and then seeks sympathy because he's an orphan. The analogy stiffened Jaramillo's body. Sagel paused. The prosecutor then announced, "We ask for a period of incarceration." Jaramillo slowly shook his head in recognition that his plight now would include a stop in a federal penitentiary.
What Jaramillo didn't (or couldn't) appreciate was the depth of Sagel's class act. Three armed U.S. Marshal's sat in the back row of the courtroom ready to take him into custody. Several times Judge Guilford asked the prosecutor if he wanted the defendant immediately incarcerated and Sagel said no because he said he felt sympathy for Jaramillo's family.
In March 2004, I broke the story "Mr. Big Mouth," which led directly to Jaramillo's firing and original indictment on corruption charges. Here was my lead paragraph: "Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo is a smart guy. Just ask him. But his worst enemy isn't his legion of critics--good-government activists, prosecutors, fellow deputies, police department lawyers in at least three cities and the county grand jury. No, Jaramillo's biggest problem is his mouth."
Leap ahead five years to Guilford's courtroom yesterday, and Jaramillo aptly remains Mr. Big Mouth.
But it wasn't just Jaramillo who screwed up. Romney showed up for the hearing 13 minutes late, filed his position papers late and, in a move that further indicated disorganization, improperly sought to delay the hearing at 3 p.m. last Friday. The mild-mannered former prosecutor-turned-defense lawyer also often seemed befuddled by Guilford's mastery of the law. During several points in the hearing, Romney argued that Jaramillo wasn't guilty of bribery, even though the ex-assistant sheriff had signed a guilty plea that acknowledged he'd used his office to secretly grab gifts and loans and gave his benefactors special favors. The attempt to parse words annoyed the judge, who has no toleration for public corruption. At another point, Guilford and Romney, who, like his client, is Mormon, battled over the lawyer's assertion that a federal probation officer was biased against Mormons who don't drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes. Guilford didn't buy it and seemed perplexed that the defense chose to focus attention on attacking federal officials instead of displaying genuine remorse.
"I need to see contriteness," said the judge. "And there was almost none."
Romney--who was, in my opinion, reluctantly operating under his client's delusions--then accused Guilford of improperly punishing Jaramillo because of defense tactics.
"I am not taking it out on Mr. Jaramillo," replied Guilford. "I'm just not buying your argument that it wasn't about bribery."
Romney sat down, and the judge continued.
"I am very disturbed by these offenses," Guilford said. "Someone very high in law enforcement stated that he devised and executed a scheme to defraud the citizens of Orange County of honest services. . . . There has to be a deterrent again this type of conduct. . . . The actions of Mr. Jaramillo cause me shame on behalf of Orange County. The sheriff's department has lost credibility with other law-enforcement agencies and perhaps with juries sitting in that box."
Guilford then said Jaramillo "and his partner in crime," Carona, have done "incalculable" damage to the OCSD. The impact is tangible even in his courtroom. According to the judge, he wondered to himself whether a sheriff's deputy who testified in a recent child-pornography trial was "a man of integrity."
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At the end, the judge ordered Jaramillo to report to the U.S. Marshal's office in Santa Ana or to the federal Bureau of Prisons at noon on Oct. 30. "Yes, sir," he replied. Somewhere, there's an easy joke that his first full day in federal custody will be Halloween.
I've spent hundreds of hours listening to Jaramillo over the years. He's a chatty fellow with more than a tinge of confidence. But as the man walked down the 10th-floor corridor inside the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse, his eyes focused on the polished floor. In almost a whisper, he told me he had nothing more to say. With another of his attorneys--Michael Mills--we boarded an elevator in silence. Jaramillo looked at me, deeply sighed, and then looked down. When we reached the first floor, the doors opened, Jaramillo proceeded to leave, turned around and said, "We'll see you later, Scott."
I walked behind Jaramillo to the doors of the building. He exited, saw the television and newspaper camera crews and took a couple of steps in the opposite direction before realizing the futility of the move. The scene produced a fitting metaphor. On this day, he couldn't escape his crimes or the unforgiving media, which he once callously dominated over as second in command of the nation's fifth-largest sheriff's department.
--R. Scott Moxley / OC Weekly