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Carona lays down law, stoops to new low

It could have been worse for Bill Hunt. He could have been a political opponent in Iraq. There, he would have been tortured or shot. Here in Orange County, he was only dispatched to Stanton.

The sorry end to the 2006 sheriff’s race came during Christmas week. Two-term Sheriff Mike Carona, who got 50.9% of the vote in the June primary to avoid a runoff, has busted Hunt, who finished second in the four-man race, from his chief’s job in San Clemente to street patrol in Stanton. That carried a demotion and a significant pay cut, not to mention that Hunt lives in South County and was well-thought of in San Clemente and....

Sheesh, why am I bothering with details as if they matter when all this comes down to is petty politics by a sheriff who’s outgrown his britches during his eight years in office?

Carona and his backers (you see what happens when you don’t back him) have said he has every right to demote a subordinate who said such mean things during the campaign. I’ve read the legal arguments that support post-election demotions or terminations for public officials, and Carona’s legal advisors say they apply here.

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At best, it’s debatable. But that’s not even the point.

The issue isn’t whether Carona has the right to treat Hunt like a 15th century heretic.

It’s whether he should.

Hunt is, after all, a lieutenant with 21 years in the department. He was apparently good enough to run the policing operation in San Clemente before the election, but now he isn’t.

So, when it comes to serving the public, just when was it that Hunt went from good cop to bad cop?

Obvious answer: When he campaigned on the fact that Carona had run into numerous problems during his eight years as sheriff and that the department needed a change in leadership. Apparently, the department’s rank-and-file agreed with Hunt, because it endorsed him last spring. He eventually finished second, with roughly 25% of the vote. Had Carona not eked out 50.9%, he and Hunt would have had a runoff in November.

Carona, who began his second term in 2002 with as much goodwill as any public official has had around here in a long time, didn’t invent workplace retaliation against opponents. He has just sunk to the level of those who did.

Retaliation happens in corporate America as well as elective office. Office warriors like to call it “hardball,” as if practicing it ascribes some toughness to them. Usually, it’s not much more than a sign of insecurity or, and I hate to repeat myself, pettiness.

Oh, sure, it’s usually dressed up as the proverbial we-all-need-to-be-rowing-in-the-same-direction mode. And that makes a certain amount of sense under some circumstances.

Such as if warring parties would be in daily contact with complementary responsibilities. Or if the loser were inciting others in the office to undermine the boss.

Hunt could have continued in San Clemente with very little contact with Carona. Obviously, as a city’s police chief, Hunt would see Carona when the higher-ups met, but a boss without vindictiveness on his mind could have abided that.

And as for whether Hunt would undermine Carona? A legitimate concern, but why not wait and see? Carona’s preemptive strike translates to one thing: political payback.

Which makes me wonder about those rank-and-filers who supported Hunt.

Here’s some advice for them: Watch your butts.

As it turned out, Hunt didn’t accept the demotion. He resigned and said he would open a private investigation agency.

So, maybe you’re thinking this is all much ado about nothing.

Here’s why it matters. Let’s say a sheriff much worse than Carona comes down the pike. Let’s say someone inside the department -- someone much more aware of the situation than an outsider would be -- wants to run against him.

Why risk it? It’s hard enough beating an incumbent in the first place. Do you want to jeopardize your job?

Should running a tough campaign for public office really mean you’re at the mercy of the winner?

You remember Mike Carona, right? The nice guy who ran for reelection without opposition in 2002?

The guy who made no secret of his religious faith before and after asking for our votes?

Well, this year he gave Bill Hunt a Christmas gift and an Old Testament reminder:

Vengeance is mine.

Dana Parsons’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He 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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