One Good Bribery Charge Deserves Another

After the Orange County Grand Jury ended weeks of speculation about the fate of George Jaramillo July 25 by announcing his indictment on multiple bribery counts, the ex-assistant sheriff fired back with a charge of his own.

"I have never been offered or taken a bribe, which is more than I can say about Tony Rackauckas, and he knows what I mean," Jaramillo said of the Orange County district attorney. The former No. 2 man at the Orange County Sheriff's Department refused to elaborate.

Reaction from prosecutors was swift.

"We feel very strongly that if Mr. Jaramillo really has any evidence that Tony Rackauckas or anyone else has accepted a bribe, he should report that to law enforcement authorities immediately," said Deputy District Attorney Susan Kang Schroeder.

Jaramillo now faces seven counts of bribery, conspiracy and conflicts of interest. The charges stem from a $25,000 consulting deal Jaramillo arranged with the Newport Beach manufacturer of a laser device designed to safely ended police pursuits. The trial could last 24 days and was assigned to Judge William Froeberg, the husband of a high-ranking deputy district attorney. If convicted, Jaramillo faces a maximum seven years in prison.

Jaramillo pleaded not guilty, and originally declined to answer media questions. "No, no, no," he said as he smiled, calmly waved his arms and retreated down a courthouse hallway. His demeanor was the same as on previous occasions when he's insisted he is "innocent of any wrongdoing." His allies say he's the victim of a conspiracy to block his rise to sheriff.

Jaramillo's ordeal began in March 2004 when he was fired days after the Weekly disclosed his financial deal with CHG Safety Technologies, Inc. In SeptemberRackauckas arrested Jaramillo and his sister-in-law, Erica Hill, alleging that the pair conspired to misappropriate public funds by giving sheriff's department resources to CHG. Investigators also tied Sheriff Mike Carona, then-Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl, other deputies and at least two Irvine cops to the company, but no charges were filed against the officers.

But there were weaknesses in the Jaramillo case that worried Rackauckas (see "Who Shot the Sheriff?" April 15). In May, the DA switched legal tactics, saying he would prosecute Jaramillo for accepting bribes rather than misappropriating public funds.

In California, a public official violates bribery statutes if he accepts compensation with the understanding that the exchange will influence his official conduct.

The new case was presented to the grand jury in July. After hearing from 16 witnesses—including Sheriff Carona but not Jaramillo—the panel voted on July 21 to indict the ex-assistant sheriff. Charges against Hill were dropped, but the grand jury didn't mince words in describing her as "Jaramillo's sister-in-law and long-term sexual partner." Joseph P. Smith, Hill's lawyer, attributed the language to unethical prosecutors. "It's just another example of the depths that this Rackauckas fellow will sink to in pursuit of his political ambitions," said Smith.

DA spokeswoman Schroeder disputed Smith's characterization, defended Rackauckas' motives and called the new case "a repackaging of the same evidence based on further legal research and strategizing."

"Basically we've just made our case a lot easier to prove," said Schroeder. "We've taken away many of Mr. Jaramillo's defenses."

But Joseph G. Cavallo, Jaramillo's attorney, reacted with characteristic feistiness.

"Their old case was going down the drain," said Cavallo. "Hopefully, the DA is going to realize these new charges aren't going to be supported with convincing evidence either and he'll dismiss them. That would be the fair and ethical thing to do."


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