A flurry of recent felony charges against Orange County sheriff’s deputies – including falsifying police reports – is prompting questions about honesty and integrity lapses within the Sheriff’s Department.

Last week saw a series of back-to-back charges and an arrest of current and former deputies, accused in separate cases across multiple years of burglarizing a home, stealing from a shoplifting suspect, and falsely stating in a police report that methamphetamine was booked into evidence.

It started last Wednesday, with a felony false police report charge against Deputy Angelina Cortez, who prosecutors say took a debit card from a shoplifting suspect in 2018 and gave it to her son, who then used it.

The next day, sheriff’s officials announced the arrest of Deputy Steve Hortz for burglarizing a dead man’s home this summer after responding to a call for service there. Hortz was caught on home security video stealing ceiling fans and weapon safes from the home, according to the Sheriff’s Department.

The following day, sheriff’s officials announced an investigation found seven employees, including at least one deputy, submitted fraudulent military orders to get paid time off from work. Sheriff officials said they’ve referred the matter to federal investigators.

That same day – Friday, Sept. 11 – news broke that the Orange County Grand Jury had approved a felony false police report charge a month earlier against Deputy Edwin Mora over a report he filed in 2017. It was the third criminal charge against an Orange County deputy among more than 30 who have been referred for possible charges in an evidence booking scandal that centers on alleged false police reports about evidence that was either booked late or never booked at all.

The scandal was kept secret for about two years by the Sheriff’s Department, until news reports last November and December revealed the department had conducted audits that found widespread late bookings and false statements by several deputies. That prompted District Attorney Todd Spitzer to take another look at cases previously rejected by prosecutors.

The county’s internal law enforcement watchdog credits sheriff officials with investigating the alleged wrongdoing, but says the findings and criminal charges against deputies point to potential ethics problems at the department.

“I think that it is heartening to see that the sheriff’s department has identified those and acted proactively to address them. They might suggest an issue with honesty and integrity within the department,” Sergio Perez, director of the county’s Office of Independent Review, said in an interview Monday.

“The department’s accountability structures internally should be focused on ensuring that reports filed by deputies are accurate and truthful,” he said, adding he plans to examine the evidence-booking issues that have come to light over the past year.

“At their core, those [issues] involve questions of accurate reporting and honesty within those reports,” Perez said.

Sheriff Don Barnes says the recent charges and announcements about deputies don’t reflect his department’s values, and that leaders acted right away to address problems when they first learned of them.

“It’s important to remember that in each of these instances, whether they were brought to the department or discovered internally, we took immediate action,” Barnes said in a statement to Voice of OC on Monday.

“Overwhelmingly, the men and women of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department do their job every day with professionalism, vigilance and integrity. In the rare occasion that one does not, we fully investigate and hold them accountable for their actions.”

County prosecutors previously had declined to file criminal charges over false police reports about evidence booking, but after the sheriff’s audits became public late last year, Spitzer reviewed the referrals again, which led to the three recent criminal cases against deputies.

“None of these people were going to face anything [criminally] unless there was a public outcry. And that starts to begin in November of 2019. Before that, all of those deputies were cleared” of criminal charges, said Assistant Public Defender Scott Sanders, who helped bring the evidence audits to light through a court filing last November.

Among those previously cleared by the DA was Deputy Bryce Simpson, whom sheriff’s officials found had made false statements in 74 different police reports about whether evidence was booked. Spitzer’s re-opening of the cases has led to the prosecution of Simpson and two other deputies so far.

Spitzer says he was kept in the dark until November 2019 about the broad scope of deputy misconduct in the audits, and that when he learned of it he promptly re-opened the criminal cases. Spitzer also directed a hand review of 22,000 sheriff cases that led to 17 additional criminal investigations of deputies, DA officials say.

“Despite cases being submitted over a period of two years, the disclosure of a full systematic [evidence booking] review was not presented to the District Attorney until November 2019 when District Attorney Spitzer met in person with Sheriff’s investigators,” Spitzer’s office said in a recent news release.

“As a result of the additional review [disclosed in November 2019], the District Attorney’s Office hired veteran prosecutor Patrick K. O’Toole as a special prosecutor to review the 17 cases and determine if criminal charges were warranted.”

Barnes says the department took the evidence-booking problems seriously – including notifying DA officials about the audits before November 2019 in individual case referrals – and followed up to make sure the problems don’t happen again.

“We have taken this issue and the associated investigations very seriously, held employees accountable who did not meet performance expectations, and have implemented multiple safeguards to ensure this will not happen in the future,” Barnes said in a statement about the latest evidence-booking charge.

In an interview, Doug Chaffee, a member of the Orange County Board of Supervisors, took note of the back-to-back announcements of alleged misconduct at the Sheriff’s Department, and said the sheriff is trying to do what he’s supposed to.

“Seems to be one incident after another. It’s a large department, a lot of stress and stuff involved with them. And the sheriff I think is trying to do his job,” Chaffee said of the felony charges against deputies.

Asked if he’s comfortable with how the department is being managed, Chaffee said, “How comfortably uncomfortable can I be?”

If he gets a chance, Chaffee added, he’d like to look more into the training deputies get and whether they have an opportunity once per year to get counseling if they need it.

The other four county supervisors didn’t return messages seeking their perspective on the back-to-back criminal charges and allegations against the deputies.

County supervisors are tasked with serving as a civilian check on the Sheriff’s Department, including overseeing the agency’s budget and defense against lawsuits. The largest campaign spender on county supervisor elections is the sheriff’s deputies’ union.

Efforts to reach attorneys for the accused deputies were unsuccessful through the California Fraternal Order of Police, which arranges criminal defense lawyers for them.

The deputies’ union expressed dismay over the burglary allegations, while calling for caution in judging those accused of falsifying military orders for paid time off.

“The report of the [burglary] allegations against the deputy is shocking and disappointing. This conduct, if true, is tremendously hurtful to the thousands of dedicated peace officers that AOCDS represents in Orange County,” said the statement from the union, the Association of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs.

Regarding the military time-off allegations, the union said, “These deputies and active armed forces members identified in the current investigation deserve a thorough and fair process to ensure all the facts are revealed before judgement. The association asks that everyone, from the sheriff on down, not rush to judgement or issue verdicts before the federal investigation has been completed.”

Asked for comment this week on the felony indictment of Deputy Mora, Spitzer had harsh words for law enforcement officers who break the law.

“It is not acceptable for men and women who swore an oath to serve the public and uphold the law to flaunt their authority and break the very laws they are sworn to enforce. No one – especially someone [in whom] the public has bestowed their ultimate trust – is above the law,” Spitzer said.

Aside from the criminal investigations and charges, taxpayers now appear to be on the hook for settling a wrongful termination lawsuit by sheriff’s investigator Sandra Hawkins. County supervisors on Tuesday approved a settlement in the case during closed session, with officials declining to say how much it will cost until it’s finalized on all sides.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.

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