Deputies’ Criticism Unnerves Scandal-Scarred OC Sheriff Sandra Hutchens

Sheriff Hutchens schooled (OC Weekly art)

Only 18 months ago, Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens hailed a formal survey of rank-and-file deputies who graded the department’s top managers on seven characteristics, including integrity, caring, innovation, communication, pro-action, trustworthiness and collaboration. Hutchens mentioned minor quibbles but praised the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs (AOCDS) for conducting a “professional and fair” rating process that made “positive” contributions that generate important “self-reflection” among her command staff. “We want leaders in the department that people respect,” the sheriff told the Voice of OC at the time.

This year’s AOCDS survey mirrored the 2015 process. Employees graded assistant sheriffs, commanders, captains and lieutenants on a scale of 1 to 5 by category and offered positive or negative comments about temperament. As with the previous year, union officials published the scores and a sampling of remarks for each manager. The AOCDS board of directors says “such data can help identify problems as well as highlight managers with superior leadership skills.”

The Weekly has learned the only difference between the two surveys is Hutchens’ divergent reactions. Dropping prior disingenuous accolades, the sheriff couldn’t suppress anger in recent months, privately seething that the process undermines efforts to sell her agency as a well-functioning machine. In a May 11 memo, she blasted AOCDS president Tom Dominguez for ignoring her desires to tamper with the survey’s outcome, which she now claims lacks validity because it includes criticisms.

“I [cautioned] Tom against handpicking anonymous, derogatory comments, as they were not constructive, but rather personal and hurtful in nature,” wrote Hutchens, who wants the union survey to echo the saccharine pulp produced by her public-relations staff. “The comments they chose to highlight are more like what one would hear on a sixth-grade playground—not from a professional organization.”

But AOCDS didn’t sugarcoat its findings. For example, Assistant Sheriff Don Barnes, who received a “very good” rank of 4.21, prompted an employee to opine, “Excels in leadership, talented, warmhearted,” with three other similarly praiseful comments. One deputy, however, stated, “Educated? Yes. Opinionated? Yes. Vindictive, petty and malicious? Absolutely.” The union issued a straightforward conclusion: “Survey responses indicate that he is the most respected assistant sheriff and his presence inspires deputies to perform their best. There were few criticisms, but perhaps Barnes could improve on being less opinionated.”

Assistant Sheriff Lee Trujillo received a mostly positive mix, too, with staffers praising his intelligence and humbleness while disapproving of his alleged willingness to waste time on non-issues and for adopting a “guilty-until-proven-innocent approach to his employees.”

None of the published comments qualify as elementary-school quips. In fact, the most critical observations were run-of-the-mill opinions you’d hear about public-sector bosses everywhere, as evidenced by what was said about Assistant Sheriff Steve Kea (“Loves to hear himself talk about how great he is”), Commander Tim Moy (“Nothing special, just an average boss collecting a salary”), Captain Stuart Greenberg (“Nice guy, poor judgment”), Lieutenant Mitch Wang (“Afraid to do what is right”), Lieutenant Michael Miller (“He will lead morale to the furthest, darkest corner of this county”) and Lieutenant Jeff McCain (“Shows favoritism”).

The one eyebrow-raising entry ridiculed Assistant Sheriff Linda Solorza, who rated a dismal 1.98 on the 5-point scale. “Only surrounds herself with those who are in her inner circle or personal friends and lifestyle,” one deputy remarked. The survey noted that Solorza “shows preferences for female deputies, which makes her appear sexist to an overwhelming majority of male deputies. . . . Until male deputies feel they are treated equally, she will not have the respect of the majority.”

Because suggestions for improvement accompanied reviews, AOCDS considers the entirety of the survey as a way to make the department “more efficient,” according to a statement the union issued in the spring with the results. They wrote, “We hope to receive even greater response to next year’s leadership assessment survey as we continue to hold our managers accountable and provide the best service we can to the residents of Orange County.”

Meanwhile, Hutchens believes the survey violates a key tenet of her law-enforcement management style: Keep the public clueless about department warts. In her memo, she claimed that in her 37 years as a cop, she “never” used “derogatory language” about her colleagues. “As a politician, I have come to expect these types of remarks from detractors on blogs and in the media, but they don’t bother me because I know who I am,” an obviously bothered sheriff complained while employing circular logic. She claims she wouldn’t hire lousy managers; therefore, they can’t exist in her command. “The managers and executives, all of whom I have promoted, possess leadership skills and integrity and have compassion for their employees.”

Voicing criticism of lower-rank employees for criticizing her most-favored employees produced hand-wringing. “I have thought long and hard about just ignoring this, but these comments go beyond the workplace; they end up in the hands of spouses, parents, siblings, children and the media,” Hutchens fretted. “I felt it important to tell you how little value I place on this survey.”

Following the convictions of the prior sheriff (Mike Carona) and his two top assistant sheriffs (George Jaramillo and Don Haidl) on federal corruption charges, Hutchens took over eight years ago, promising honest public service. In fact, according to her campaign website, “integrity” is her guiding principle. Using a low standard established by Carona, she has succeeded. I doubt she wakes up each day looking to execute harebrained schemes involving wild, on-duty sex parties and under-the-table cash. She most certainly doesn’t call a part of her anatomy “The Little Sheriff.”

Hutchens’ flaws are nonetheless monumental. As with her determination to whitewash the AOCDS surveys, the sheriff has repeatedly proven during Orange County’s ongoing jailhouse-informant scandal that she’ll cover up corruption that has earned national alarm. There have even been calls for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into irrefutable evidence her deputies systemically conducted unconstitutional scams to trick pretrial inmates into making self-incriminating statements.

The sheriff’s strategy to survive the scandal is simple: Play dumb. Entire records systems were hidden for decades from judges issuing discovery orders not because they contained proof of the illegal scams, but because deputies innocently assumed department secrecy desires outweighed judicial authority, she claims. Veteran deputies who’d testified dozens and dozens of times and had been labeled “experts” in court proceedings didn’t commit perjury while denying dirty informant tactics, as Judge Thomas M. Goethals determined, but rather were ignorant about how to testify under oath, she claims.

But the most outrageous fib is Hutchens’ insistence there can be no jail-snitch scandal because deputies didn’t employ informants. District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, the beneficiary of the deputies’ cheating, enthusiastically joined in that pretense for more than two years. Facing the pending disclosure of 1,157 more improperly hidden and damning records on June 9, Rackauckas finally conceded what Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders has been saying since 2014: Jail deputies “cultivated and utilized” snitches to conduct illegal “capers” against government targets.

Abandoned by her accomplice, Hutchens remains in her fantasyland. Reality is what she says it is, darn it. A department flack recently renewed the sheriff’s stance to the Huffington Post, saying, “There is no jail-informant program in the jail.”

AOCDS Leadership Survey by OC Weekly on Scribd

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