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Carona’s Badge Is Slightly Tarnished

No less a law enforcement authority than Larry King anointed Mike Carona as “America’s Sheriff” after he appeared on TV during a high-profile child-abduction and murder case in 2002.

Please, do not show Mr. King a copy of Thursday’s Los Angeles Times.

In it, The Times reported that Carona -- in his real day job as Orange County’s sheriff -- early on in his tenure deputized 86 friends, relatives and political contributors without subjecting any of them to background checks. In addition, some of them had not been fully trained. They were part of a much larger number who were checked out and given deputy status, but 86 is not a small number.

Carona didn’t invent the practice of rewarding friends and relatives -- moneyed or otherwise -- with deputy badges, the power of arrest and concealed-weapon permits. And I’m not saying this means we have a corrupt sheriff on our hands.

It’s impossible to know whether some abused their privileges. Most likely, some never did anything more than flash a badge in restaurants to get good tables. But who knows? A deputy’s badge can get you into good spots or out of bad ones.

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But here’s what gets me. Carona impressed lots of people in high places with his personal appeal and management style. He’s one of the local officials from around the country named to help advise the White House on homeland security issues.

I’m now trying to square that role, one that I know Carona values, with someone who handed out Sheriff’s Department cachet like it was Easter candy.

All of them -- so designated during Carona’s first term that began in 1999 -- couldn’t have been cousins he’d known all his life. In other words, Carona, presumably ever vigilant about homeland security after 2001 and mindful that one slip-up could cause disaster, had already handed out special-access powers with one eye closed.

To show how seriously others took Carona’s largesse, the state commission that regulates standards and training for police officers eventually took the unprecedented step of removing the 86 from its roster of peace officers. Today, however, 56 of the 86 still have their deputy status with the Orange County department, according to The Times report. The department told The Times it was reviewing the status of the volunteer deputies.

OK, scenario time. Let’s say you’re a terrorist needing a way to get past security at a target site. How to do that? Apparently, one way -- although expensive -- would have been to become a big donor to the Carona campaign and sell yourself as one of the sheriff’s biggest fans. You make it clear that your heart and wallet would always be open to the big guy.

To continue our scenario, you tell the sheriff’s people that all you want is a deputy’s badge, some impressive ID papers and, hey, how about a gun, too.

Any concerns about a background check apparently didn’t exist. You were already in the inner circle. Your campaign donation saw to that.

Use your own twisted imagination to play out my scenario. You want to get yourself and some pals into the Anaheim Convention Center? No problem. How about any hotel in Orange County? Sheriff’s Department headquarters?

Did I watch one too many episodes of “24" this season? Perhaps. And before you call the mental-health authorities on me, I’ll admit I’m not overly concerned that someone like Habib Marwan, the fictional terrorist of the just-ended “24" season, could have penetrated Carona’s inner circle.

Utterly impossible. Right?

The point is, when you have a policy that grants police powers to people who don’t deserve it, you take your chances. Some babe in the woods might run an office like that, but you wouldn’t expect America’s Sheriff to do it.

If your conclusion now is that I’m not taking the subject of reserve sheriff’s deputies nearly seriously enough, my response is simple:

For too long, neither did the sheriff.

Dana Parsons can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.


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