O.C. Sheriff Made Donors His Deputies
Friends, relatives were also among the 86 who received badges, even though some lacked training. Carona says there was no public risk.
By Christine Hanley
Times Staff Writer
Shortly after he took office, Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona and one of his top assistants deputized 86 friends, relatives, political contributors and others, giving them badges, powers of arrest and in some cases guns — despite the fact that none had background investigations and some had not been fully trained.
Three years later, the state's Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training removed all 86 of the reserve deputies from California's peace officer database, which meant the commission no longer recognized them as peace officers. Even so, 56 still have their badges and identification cards, and 14 have concealed weapons permits.A commission executive said he knows of no other case in which reserves have been removed from the database. The commission does not have the power to force a police agency to comply with its rules, but it can decertify a reserve program — a step that would jeopardize the program's funding and credibility.
A Sheriff's Department audit, which is continuing, has determined that six of the volunteer deputies were performing police duties. Department officials ordered the six to stop performing police duties until background and training questions were resolved. The department had issued guns to four of the six, who have since returned the weapons.
In an e-mail responding to questions from The Times, Carona denied wrongdoing and said there was no public risk in allowing the reserve deputies to keep their badges. He said the appointments were not political favors, but acknowledged the group of reserve deputies included supporters, friends and family. Carona said he expected all of the reserve deputies to fulfill their duties.
"Like any organization, the first group of individuals we reach out to for support and assistance is friends and family of the members of the organization," Carona wrote.
Of the original 86 reserve deputies, 29 had contributed to Carona's inaugural election campaign in 1998 and his re-election campaign in 2002. Several others hosted fundraisers for him or the Mike Carona Foundation, a philanthropic group. The list includes physicians, lawyers, business owners and one of Orange County's top restaurateurs, who has hosted several Carona fundraisers.
Several of the reserve deputies had ties to former Assistant Sheriff Donald Haidl, who established the reserve program for Carona. Among them are Haidl's brother, sister, nephew and two other relatives. Haidl's private pilots, his personal secretary and other employees from his auction company also were deputized.
Carona enlisted the 86 volunteers in his reserve program in 1999, the year after he had been elected sheriff. He did so despite alarms raised by the state commission and a county attorney, who questioned whether the reserve deputies had been properly screened and trained.
The information for this article comes from hundreds of pages of documents obtained through public records requests and provided by other sources, and interviews with sheriff's officials and reserve officers, some of whom agreed to speak only on the condition that their names not be used.
Carona declined to be interviewed in person, but answered questions by e-mail. He did not respond to follow-up questions.
Documents indicate that the appointments were rushed to avoid tougher training requirements adopted by the state and that red flags — including failed psychological exams and lying about a criminal history — were overlooked during the application process.
Among the applicants were a former police officer who had been fired for lying during an internal affairs investigation, an executive who failed to disclose he'd twice been arrested and another who was identified as "psych reject."
Reserve deputies have been reported misusing badges and police credentials. In one case, a reserve officer hosting a Jordanian VIP flashed his badge to get a hotel employee in Anaheim to open rooms that were not under his name. Another reserve deputy became angry and announced he was an Orange County deputy when an Amtrak ticket taker asked him and his guests to move out of an area of a train reserved for business class passengers.
Sheriff's officials authorized to discuss the reserve program acknowledged this month that background checks for the reserves were not completed until last year — five years after the appointments. Over the years, the original group of 86 shrank as some resigned or were demoted to a rank that carries no police powers. Efforts are continuing to get the remaining 56 reserves in good standing with the state, department officials said.
One of the reserve deputies, who asked not to be identified out of concern his appointment might be jeopardized, said a core group of reserves who helped Carona get elected were less interested in patrol duties than the privilege of having a badge and being part of his inner circle.
"It was clear from the beginning that there was an expectation that we would financially support Carona's political campaign and his foundation," he said. "It was known from Day 1 that there was no expectation to participate in police work."
Several other reserve officers, however, said they wanted to be involved in police work. John Swett, a 73-year-old retired anatomy professor, said he had helped at the coroner's office before leaving the program about two years ago. Sam Campolito, 65, a retired Huntington Beach police officer, was assigned to community programs and still works as a reserve.
"I joined the reserves because I enjoy doing police work," Campolito said.
Other reserve officers on the list declined to comment. After The Times made inquiries about the reserve program, the Sheriff's Department sent a divisionwide e-mail discouraging anyone from speaking with the media without authorization.
The dispute between Carona and the state over the reserve appointments is the latest of several controversies that have dogged the Sheriff's Department over the last year. Former Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo, a trusted ally of Carona's, was dismissed last year and is facing public corruption charges. Haidl left earlier this year to focus on his son's trial on rape charges.
The group of recruits is part of a much larger volunteer force of citizens that the Sheriff's Department — like law enforcement agencies across the nation — uses to supplement its rank and file. In one prominent Orange County case, for example, scores of reserve deputies combed parks after the discovery that someone had placed razor blades in places that could harm children.
In other cases, reserve deputies handle lesser police work, such as transporting prisoners or helping with crowd control. Some help with investigations and have the power to make arrests.
Haidl, a businessman who helped bankroll Carona's first campaign, created a new category of Orange County reserves after Carona's election in 1998. The program, known as the Professional Service Reserves, was designed to attract professionals — doctors, lawyers, scientists, computer specialists and others willing to provide free expertise on topics ranging from improving budgets to fighting terrorism. People in that program have no police powers.
Many of the 86 reserve deputies who fell under scrutiny were initially brought in as Professional Service Reserves in 1999 and then later that year elevated to a status that allowed them limited police powers, including the right to carry a gun.
The promotion took place days before the state raised the number of hours of training reserve deputies were required to have, going from at least 64 hours to 162.
It is unclear how much training Orange County reserves received, though some did complete the academy program.
In a memo dated June 21, 1999, deputy county counsel Barbara L. Stocker warned of potential risks associated with making "conditional offers of employment" to reserves before the completion of background investigations or completion of training.
Stocker recommended that Sheriff's Department officials seek advice from the state's standards and training commission before moving ahead. On two occasions, commission representatives told department representatives that the background investigations must be complete before any reserve appointments, according to records. But department officials went ahead with the appointments.
In 2001, the commission found that background checks had still not been completed for any of the reserve deputies and that a majority had not completed the required coursework on arrest procedures and use of firearms.
In correspondence with the state, Carona defended the appointments and appealed the commission's decision to remove the reserves from the state's database. Carona relied on advice from former state GOP chair Michael Schroeder, an attorney who at the time was a sheriff's reserve deputy himself and a political advisor to Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas.
Schroeder, now the sheriff's political advisor, argued that the rules about background checks did not apply because reserves are volunteers, not employees of the department, and therefore not subject to "pre-employment" investigation. He also argued that background checks did not have to be complete before an appointment, but "before being assigned to duties."
The commission rejected those arguments, and executive director Kenneth O'Brien sent Carona a letter in August 2002 reminding him the reserve deputies were out of compliance and in violation of state law. He concluded that Carona had rushed the appointments to avoid stiffer training standards.
"Once it became clear to me that nothing short of waiving the background requirements (86 times) would satisfy you, I exercised my authority to remove the improperly entered names from the database," O'Brien wrote.
The internal audit began at the end of 2003, to review the reserve files with an eye toward identifying and correcting problems. The audit also is an attempt to resolve what the Sheriff's Department said were philosophical differences with the state on whether the appointments were appropriate.
In January, auditors suggested the reserve deputies either be ordered to attend a police academy or accept a demotion to a level at which they would have no police powers. In July, Carona and Schroeder are scheduled to meet with the commission in an effort to persuade them that the remaining 56 reserve officers are in compliance with state guidelines.