In the past 2 years, activities by Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates against several of his political rivals have led to legal actions that could wind up costing county taxpayers at least $750,000.
It is public money foolishly and needlessly lost that could have been much better used in many ways in the county treasury or in the Sheriff’s Department budget to help pay for critically needed jail space.
But even more distressing than the monetary loss to taxpayers is the implication that the sheriff has been using, or more appropriately, misusing the power and position of his office against his critics and political opponents.
In federal court Wednesday, a jury awarded $189,894 in damages and will mostly assuredly award legal fees as high as $200,000 to a private investigator who said Gates violated his civil rights in using sheriff’s investigators to harass him, resulting in charges of carrying a concealed weapon and impersonating a law officer being brought against him. The private investigator was cleared of those charges that were filed by Anaheim police, who looked into the case after a separate probe by sheriff’s investigators.
In 1987, a civil rights lawsuit alleging that Gates improperly used his office to harass and spy on critics was settled out of court for $375,000. That case involved secret tape recordings made of a classroom lecture by an instructor who was critical of Gates and had once run against him for sheriff.
Court documents and investigative notes at the time also indicated the existence of another tape in the sheriff’s files that contained a telephone conversation made by an informant to a then-Register newspaper reporter who had written stories critical of how Gates ran the County Jail. The reporter has filed his own $11-million lawsuit against Gates, and another related lawsuit is pending against Gates in federal court.
How much more will taxpayers have to shell out before Gates learns his lesson? Criticism of public officials is nothing new. It goes with the job. So do political enemies. But the specter of a public law enforcement official using his police powers to try to intimidate and stifle a critic is distressing and deplorable. Some political observers say they do not think the verdict will affect Gates’ chances for reelection or hurt him politically. That, however, is not the primary concern. The jury decision and damages awarded should prompt Gates to refrain from ever thinking about using his office in any way to harass or hurt others.