Conflicting Conflicts

As media spectacles go, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas must be proud of his Sept. 30 press conference explaining corruption charges against ex-assistant sheriff George Jaramillo and his sister-in-law, Erica Hill. Los Angeles and OC television, radio and print reporters packed the conference room at the DA's Santa Ana headquarters. Flags, deputies and other visual aids—a crime timeline, flow chart and pictures—flanked Rackauckas. He called it a “sad day for Orange County law enforcement” and spoke of “sacred duty,” “the public trust” and “high ethical standards.” Using “public office for personal gain” won't be tolerated. For hungover or slow reporters, a simple poster beside Rackauckas declared his mission: “Protecting the Public Purse.”

There was no mention of the taxpayer-funded, Santa Ana Elks Lodge drinking binges by members of his department. Or the sweetheart prosecutorial deal that shortchanged government coffers tens of millions of dollars in favor of MTBE polluting oil companies. On this day, everyone was happy to focus on Jaramillo.

It's difficult to feel sympathy for Sheriff Mike Carona's ex-No. 2, an undeniably smart if oily political appointee who demanded salutes from real cops, bragged about doling out favors to local politicians and used department property—such as helicopters and patrol cars—as if they were his own.

Worse are the alleged get-rich schemes. In the current case, prosecutors found a document showing that Jaramillo sought as much as $642,000 from a Newport Beach company, CHG Safety Technologies. CHG wanted lucrative contracts with law enforcement agencies throughout the nation. Days after the Weekly disclosed the arrangement in March, Carona fired Jaramillo and the FBI raided his office. Bank records show he and his wife Lisa have already taken at least $25,000 and that his sister-in-law landed a $60,000 annual job at CHG.

Ironies abound:

–If convicted, Jaramillo—the man who recently headed the county jail system and his department's national security operations—faces up to nine years in state prison. He says he's innocent and a victim of a conspiracy by other lawmen.

–Unlike her sister, Lisa Jaramillo hasn't been charged. She is the onetime campaign treasurer for the DA, the sheriff and likely 2006 Rackauckas challenger Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Brea), to name a few.

–Carona's campaign received thousands of dollars in illegally funneled CHG money, but the politically ambitious sheriff denies any knowledge of the funds. He also says he knew nothing about Jaramillo's “consulting” deal with the firm even though he met with CHG owner Charles Gabbard and Jaramillo.

–At the press conference, Rackauckas said nothing about two other people who signed the CHG contract with Jaramillo: multi-millionaire Don Haidl, another assistant sheriff who resigned his office in late September, and well-connected Newport Beach real estate developer J. Harold Street. Their roles in the CHG scheme will remain off limits if Orange County history is any guide.

But the best irony is Rackauckas, the man who now says “the public must have confidence in its leaders, especially law enforcement leaders.” In 2000, the DA ordered his organized crime unit to “immediately cease” their investigation of Newport Beach businessman Patrick N. Di Carlo in connection with East Coast/Las Vegas/Southern California mob activity. (Di Carlo says he's erroneously been a mob suspect for decades.)

When Rackauckas learned that his organized crime unit had kept what it deemed suspicious audiotapes of Di Carlo, the DA demanded that the cassettes be destroyed. Later, the public learned that Di Carlo was a Rackauckas contributor, campaign director and fishing buddy. It got better. At the same time the DA was shutting down the Di Carlo probe, his then-wife Kay and another deputy district attorney, Michelle Clesceri, became president and secretary of, a Di Carlo family business based in Las Vegas.

Asked in a 2001 Weekly interview to explain the arrangement, Rackauckas denied the appearance of a conflict of interest. According to the DA, the deal, which eventually busted, was “just a business opportunity.” He said, “We don't have organized crime, you know, any of the traditional New York or Chicago Mafia families operating out of Orange County.”

What is the current definition of organized crime? What's the public to think about two top assistant sheriffs having undisclosed lucrative contracts with a company seeking business with government agencies? Is Jaramillo, the onetime favorite to replace Carona as sheriff, possibly the sole villain in a relatively clean system? Or does the Jaramillo case offer a rare glimpse into an ugly reality?


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