Santana: Will Orange County’s Law Enforcement Complex Survive The Stand?

ANA VENEGAS, The Orange County Register

Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, left, and District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, break out in an argument as Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, sits at center. The Register hosted "Beyond the Snitch Tank," a forum on the future of Orange County's justice system. Panelists included District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, Sheriff Sandra Hutchens, Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, Deputy District Attorney Ebrahim Baytieh, reporter Tony Saavedra and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward Humes.

I’ll bet Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens is one badass poker player.

She’s got a brewing snitch scandal inside her jails that has not only landed on 60 Minutes but is being looked over by the federal Department of Justice as well as the State Attorney General.

Today, Orange County’s grand jury is also expected to release a critical report on the scandal.

Add to that the fact that Hutchens is also being sued by her corps of 300 Sheriff Special Officers over her stripping them of peace officer status as well as her 1800 or so rank and file Sheriff’s Deputies over last year’s controversial jail escape.

One Sheriff’s official last week testified in court that given overall bad management and staffing, often times it’s the inmates who are in charge of our local jails.

That’s pretty much what the lawsuit brought by the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriff’s argues as well.

Yet through it all, Hutchens remains cool and collected in public.

Maybe it’s the kind of inner peace that comes with two public safety retirement pensions (LA County and Orange County) waiting in the wings - along with a nice paycheck and no public heir or challenger.

Talking to Hutchens, you get a sense of ease that anytime officials don’t want her around, she’s ready to head back home to Dana Point and cook up some pasta for her husband Larry and their dog.

Last week, I watched her take the stand and get hammered for hours on end by attorneys working for the Orange County Employees Association – who essentially argued that she might have politically pulled the plug on Sheriff’s Special Officers after they tried to expand their benefits by testifying at a Sacramento hearing.

Back in 2012, Special Officers – who mainly take care of our public buildings and places like John Wayne Airport – were challenged by the state’s police training agency as lacking the proper training to retain their peace officer status.

Without Peace Officer status, a big issue for these officers now is their inability to keep concealed weapons while they are off-duty.

Hutchens could have maintained these officers’ ability to keep concealed weapons while off-duty by simply updating their training.

She says it’s too costly – even though the department never formally studied the cost. Special Officers say she retaliated against them – downgrading their status to Public instead of Peace Officers - because they started flexing their political muscles, such as heading up to the hearing in Sacramento.

Yet day after day, while Hutchens was questioned on the stand, she didn’t budge.

She often said, “I don’t recall,” but she never cracked on the stand. She never even got testy as far as I could tell. If anything, she often smiled while sitting in a black pants suit as opposed her official uniform.

One day last week, she even agreed to let me accompany her after her testimony while she walked without bodyguards a half-dozen blocks back to her office, politely taking questions – or better yet avoiding questions.

Hutchens comes off as confident, not cocky, saying she is looking forward to having all these investigations take their course, believing her department can survive a close look under the hood.

Yet it’s that kind of examination that ended the tenure of her mentor, Sheriff Lee Baca, in Los Angeles.

And despite her confidence, this jailhouse informants scandal doesn’t seem to be going away.

Soon, she is expected to take the stand herself.

Nearly a half dozen Sheriff’s deputies have taken the Fifth when asked questions about the secret informants program that Hutchens and District Attorney Tony Rackauckas say doesn’t exist. There’s also an electronic database on informants (called TRED) and deputies’ notes about informants as well. Several deputies have been granted immunity in exchange for testimony and others are testifying openly, offering detailed descriptions about how snitches were utilized.

Meanwhile, we know of at least a half-dozen informant cases – in some cases involving murderers - where shady people who should probably be behind bars are walking free because of mismanagement by Sheriff’s officials and prosecutors.

And at the same time, it seems a whole roster of dubious informants were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars by local taxpayers for who knows what.

Lastly, the most troubling aspect of this entire scandal is the fact that none of our taxpayer-funded oversight institutions – our board of supervisors, or the Sheriff’s internal affairs unit, or the Office of Independent Review at the Sheriff’s Department or the County Performance Auditor - caught any of this.