Republican Undersheriff Donald Barnes and Los Angeles District Attorney Investigator Duke Nguyen, a Democrat, are vying to replace retiring Sheriff Sandra Hutchens on Nov. 6, in a contest that will test whether years of scandal and controversies have affected how voters view the embattled department.

Barnes, who has worked for the Sheriff’s Department for 29 years and touts his experience as the department’s second-in-command, emerged from the June primary election just shy, at 49.4 percent, of the majority of votes he needed to win the seat outright.

Nguyen, a Vietnamese refugee who came to the United States in 1981, earned 31 percent of votes in the primary despite relatively little campaigning or spending at the time. He is currently an investigator for the LA County DA, and before that, was a Santa Ana police officer.

A third candidate, Republican Aliso Viejo Mayor and former Sheriff’s sergeant David Harrington, received 19.5 percent of the primary vote.

Hutchens announced in June 2017 that she would not seek re-election, immediately endorsing Barnes as her successor. He’s since been the public face of the department and has benefited from an outpouring of support from elected officials and more than half a million in outside spending by the sheriff’s deputies’ union.

Barnes’ campaign has spent more than $646,000 so far this year, compared to more than $134,000 by Nguyen’s campaign. Barnes has also benefited from more than $561,000 in spending by the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs (AOCDS).

The challenge for Barnes will be defending a department that in recent years has been the subject of heavy criticism over the illegal use of jailhouse informants, treatment of inmates in county jails and a dramatic jail escape by three inmates who weren’t captured by law enforcement until eight days later.

The election comes amid pending investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice and California Attorney General into the illegal use of jailhouse informants by county law enforcement,.

Recently, the department has come under fire over recordings of jail phone calls between inmates and their attorneys, which the Sheriff blamed on an error by its contractor, Global Tel Link. Defense attorneys, however, raised questions about how Sheriff’s management did not know about the phone calls – which should be kept confidential because of attorney-client privilege – when their deputies and investigators were listening to some of the calls.

Election Day could result in dramatic changes for county law enforcement. In addition to the race for Sheriff, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas is facing his toughest re-election bid yet against county supervisor Todd Spitzer, a former protégé-turned-foe of the incumbent DA who has been preparing to run for the seat for years.

The Sheriff’s Department, Barnes included, has disputed media reporting and criticism of the department over the jailhouse informants scandal. While a trial court and the Fourth District Court of Appeals have issued rulings saying the department has long-standing, “systemic” issues with illegal informant use, Hutchens and Barnes cite an Orange County Grand Jury report that attributes the misconduct to a few “rogue” deputies who largely acted on their own.

When legitimate criticism arises, the department has been responsive to criticism and fixed those problems, Barnes has said. 

Nguyen has said that simply hasn’t been true, pointing to voluminous evidence of informant use, and written memos between supervisors about it.

“I don’t buy that management didn’t know because this has been going on for an extended period of time. If management doesn’t know, they’re not doing their job,” Nguyen told Voice of OC earlier this year. 

The Sheriff’s approach to immigration issues has also mobilized progressive groups behind Nguyen.

In March, the department began posting inmate release dates online to circumvent the “sanctuary state” laws in California that limit cooperation between local law enforcement and immigration officials.

Barnes is a vocal opponent of the sanctuary state law – known as Senate Bill 54. Nguyen, who says he would work to end “systemic corruption, racism, and disenfranchisement” by count law enforcement, supports the sanctuary state law.

One group, KRC in Action, a political arm of the Korean Resource Center that receives funds from billionaire Tom Steyer’s NextGen America and the Service Employees International Union, has focused on turning out Asian American and Pacific Islander voters, focusing on issues like immigration and policing by the Sheriff’s Department. The group has endorsed Nguyen.

Contact Thy Vo at or follow her on Twitter @thyanhvo.

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