Finalists for O.C. sheriff get their say

Times Staff Writers

The nine candidates competing to become Orange County's next sheriff have 263 years of law enforcement experience among them. They share the same views on what ails the department and how to fix it: strong leadership to force institutional culture change and restore the public's trust.

The Board of Supervisors will embark Tuesday on an unprecedented process to choose a replacement for Michael S. Carona, who resigned this year after being indicted on federal corruption charges.

At a marathon daylong hearing, each candidate is scheduled to appear before the board for an hourlong public interview.

Ordinarily the sheriff is chosen by voters, but county lawyers concluded that supervisors could appoint someone to fill the remainder of Carona's term.

A final vote is scheduled for June 3, but some board members are eager to conclude the process and may seek a vote Tuesday night after the interviews conclude. But other supervisors say they will want to take time and digest what they've heard before making a selection.

Close observers and insiders have spent weeks reading tea leaves hoping to see which candidate has the best chance of winning the job -- the acting sheriff, Jack Anderson, who was appointed by Carona; other well-known local law enforcement figures such as Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters and Los Angeles County Sheriff's Cmdr. Ralph Martin; or outsiders such as Glendale Police Chief Randy Adams.

But publicly, at least, board members and their aides have said they have not settled on any particular candidate and want to hear from all applicants before formulating an opinion.

"I've got a very open mind, and I think that's what you have to go into it with," Supervisor Patricia Bates said.

"Hopefully the best person is very obvious to us and the public."

The county conducted an international search for candidates and had an initial list of nearly 50 to choose from.

But in the end, eight of the nine finalists come from Southern California -- six of them live in Orange County.

In addition to Anderson, Martin, Walters and Adams, the candidates are Salt Lake County Undersheriff Beau Babka; San Bernardino County Undersheriff Richard Beemer; former Orange County Sheriff's Lt. Bill Hunt; Anaheim Deputy Police Chief Craig Hunter; and Sandra Hutchens, former Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department division chief.

Even the three candidates considered favorites by many insiders -- Anderson, Walters and Martin -- will have significant obstacles to overcome.

Several supervisors have said they're pleased with Anderson's performance as Carona's temporary fill-in.

He proposed a monumental change in the jails, calling for deputies to be replaced by lower-paid, non-sworn correctional officers -- a step that could save the county millions of dollars a year.

And he responded quickly to a grand jury investigation that found some deputies at Theo Lacy Jail napped or watched television while inmates policed themselves, suspending several deputies and launching what he called the largest internal-affairs investigation in department history.

But concerns about his ties to Carona -- the former sheriff appointed Anderson as his replacement before leaving office -- could damage his chances. Anderson said he hoped that was not the case.

"It would be shortsighted to think that the Board of Supervisors could not differentiate between Mike Carona having been my boss, which I did not choose, and what I have been doing," he said.

Anderson further distanced himself from Carona last week when he found surveillance equipment in Carona's former office and reported it to federal authorities. He announced his action to supervisors in an e-mail and invited the media to examine his former boss' office space. Apparent whisper campaigns have raised ugly, but so far unproven, allegations, signaling how politicized the process has become.

Walters has been asked to defend his personal life, thanks to revelations about his finances contained in records of his 2007 divorce from his longtime wife, Linda.

According to the records, Walters had more than $100,000 in credit card and other debt at the time of the filing. Martin and others pointed out that many police and sheriff's departments won't hire officers with large debt.

"We routinely disqualify people with bad debt ratios," Martin said.

Walters, in an interview, said he paid off the debt but he declined to discuss how he amassed it.

And Martin was questioned by the search committee about an allegation that he once took a leave of absence from work because of stress. He adamantly denied that and said he would produce his personnel records if asked.

Whoever wins the job will face the daunting task of righting a department tarnished by allegations of corruption, cronyism and mismanagement, one that has lurched from one embarrassment to the next in recent months.

Recent headlines have included one deputy being charged with filing 18 false police reports, another killing himself in his patrol car after being charged with molestation, and a reserve officer -- and martial arts instructor to Carona -- convicted of threatening a golfer over a wayward fairway shot.

There have been investigations into whether jail deputies used a stun gun on a cat -- test results were inconclusive -- and whether proper investigative procedures were ignored in the handling of an apparent suicide by the son of two sheriff's officials.

But none has been more damaging than the indictment of Carona last fall on charges that he sold access to his office for personal gain, or revelations in a grand jury report that a deputy at Theo Lacy Jail watched "Cops" and exchanged cellphone text messages with friends while an inmate was beaten to death just a short distance away.

As the candidates seeking the top job see it, the problems at the rank-and-file level are the direct result of a vacuum in the head office.

Though they differed on their approach to the job in many respects, they mostly agreed that changing the department culture required the same thing: aggressive engagement with the rank and file, setting high expectations for behavior, and pressing for accountability while encouraging participation and assuring clear opportunities for advancement.

"Everything comes back to the culture, and everything comes back to leadership from the top," said Hutchens, a 29-year veteran of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, who is among the finalists. "If the leadership at the top is not modeling the behavior of the people you expect to work for you, it's not going to work."




Times staff writer Christine Hanley contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World