Thirteen months ago, Mike Carona—onetime sheriff of California's second-largest sheriff's agency, the most popular politician in Orange County and, in the view of Republican strategists, the man destined to unseat U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer—entered his new home: a federal prison in Littleton, Colorado.
By the time of that once seemingly impossible moment, we'd learned ugly truths about Carona's chameleonic nature as head of the Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD). He posed as the ethical savior of the agency while he secretly took bundles of cash, tailor-made suits, a boat, jet rides and casino chips from a San Bernardino used-car salesman determined to get a real sheriff's badge and full police powers. He gave passionate speeches about the Lord ruling his life while he practiced vodka-martini-fueled serial adultery. He swore to uphold the sanctity of the criminal-justice system while he partied—in uniform!—at Newport Beach bars with organized-crime members and conspired to thwart a federal grand jury's probe into his maneuverings.
To appreciate Carona's skill at masking his vices behind a potent smile and warm handshakes, recall that President George W. Bush named him to a top-secret panel overseeing national security after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger toyed with the idea of him as California's lieutenant governor. Though Carona had been a gloried bailiff who'd never made an arrest or solved a crime, Hollywood producers wanted to feature him as the star of reality-TV shows depicting law-enforcement heroics.
Not surprisingly, I've received reports from inside the Colorado prison that he's fitting in with the other inmates. To show he's hip, Carona has grown a ponytail. He likes to sip coffee, tell stories and gaze at the nearby Rocky Mountains. No doubt his incarceration is made easier by the fact that OC taxpayers will continue to pay him about $20,000-per-month for the rest of his life.
Having watched the guy in action for nearly 17 years, I know people have succumbed to his wily charms. But he should have lost his magic when FBI and IRS agents arrested him on public-corruption charges in October 2007. Or certainly by May 2009, when U.S. District Judge Andrew J. Guilford rejected Carona's excuses (including that federal agents should have told him in advance they were going to surreptitiously record his conversations with the aforementioned used-car salesman) and sentenced him to serve 66 months in prison.
Yet, incredibly, more than four years after his public persona collapsed, Carona's lies still wield power even over folks who aren't normally gullible. Forget for a moment our county's Board of Supervisors, which continues to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars defending the ex-sheriff's despicable acts in lawsuits. Instead, focus your attention on four federal judges and the alarming civil case of former sheriff's Lieutenant Bill Hunt.
For 21 years, Hunt enjoyed a stellar career at OCSD. Unlike Carona, he rose through the ranks based on merit. The Massachusetts native excelled at every assignment: narcotics, patrol, jail, SWAT, investigations and as the popular chief of police in San Clemente, where the department holds a contract to provide police services.
Fourteen years into Hunt's career, Carona won the sheriff's post in an election. He'd secretly stolen that contest, a fact that took a decade and a federal trial to uncover. Above everything else, this sheriff prized not only personal loyalty, but also a willingness to lie and cheat to advance his fake, Christian-conservative persona. These observations explain the rise of Jo Ann Galisky, a reality-challenged deputy who didn't graduate from high school yet leaped ahead of dozens upon dozens of more qualified deputies to assume the rank of assistant sheriff under Carona.
This column isn't meant as an exhaustive list of Carona's failings that wrecked OCSD, but rather to provide context for Hunt's decision to challenge his boss in the 2006 election. Though he lost that race to the much-better-funded Carona, Hunt helped expose the sheriff's ugly side to a mostly ignorant community.
No good deed goes unpunished. The day after the election, the sheriff sent a message to his public employees: He demoted Hunt three ranks and reassigned him to work in Stanton, the department's Siberia. He also ordered veteran deputies to investigate Hunt for possible rule violations instead of pursuing street criminals. In a deposition obtained by the Weekly, Carona bragged that his goal had been to “humiliate.”
Hunt quit and, claiming First Amendment violations, sued in July 2007. In response, the sheriff and the county's lawyers in consultation with county supervisors surmised they would legally justify the retaliation against Hunt as permissible on a technicality: Hunt could be abused because he'd been an OCSD “policymaker.”
The notion is, of course, shamelessly disingenuous. Though Hunt was a chief of police, he was one of 60 lieutenants in the department. He reported to the captain of South County operations, and that person reported to an assistant sheriff. He didn't regularly meet with Carona. He never designed a policy, and he never modified a policy. He was never asked to participate in policy-making decisions. His job was to carry out orders from above without question. He couldn't even hire or fire the deputies on his staff.
After hearing evidence, a federal jury concluded that “there were no areas of policy over which [Hunt] had policymaking authority,” that “[Hunt's] responsibilities were restricted to implementing [the department's] goals within a general framework” and that he didn't have “substantial influence” over any OCSD policy.
Yet federal Judge Margaret M. Morrow, a Bill Clinton appointee from Harvard, contorted logic. After noting that jurors also concluded that Hunt had the ability to influence the implementation of Carona-made policies in San Clemente, Morrow claimed the sheriff had a “vital government interest” in silencing his critic and ruled in his favor. In this judge's mind, a policy implementer who had no policymaking authority was still a policymaker.
Last week, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit rejected Morrow's stance as “wrong.” In a 19-page ruling, the court said that “all reasonable inferences” of the facts “support the conclusion that Hunt was not a policymaker.”
Would Hunt finally catch a break after bravely standing against a crooked sheriff?
Despite declaring the policymaking excuse hogwash, the Ninth Circuit let the ex-sheriff play his last disingenuous card by ruling Carona cannot be held legally accountable after all because his erroneous assumption about Hunt's status as a policymaker had been sincere. Courts have permitted this type of loophole defense in the past. Without noting that Carona is a certifiable liar and convicted felon, the judges based their case-ending conclusion on his word.
“It's unbelievable,” said Hunt, now a private detective whose state lawsuit alleging Carona violated the California Peace Officers Bill of Rights is ongoing. “Where's the justice? This ruling chills deputies down the road from ever telling the truth about corruption.”
This column appeared in print as “Mike Carona's Excellent Big House Adventure: OC's incarcerated dirty ex-sheriff is enjoying his Rocky Mountain view and ridiculously favorable court rulings.”
R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.