The U.S. attorney's office has declined to prosecute Orange County Sheriff Brad Gates in a case involving a surreptitious audiotape recording of a classroom lecture given by a Rancho Santiago College instructor who had opposed Gates at the polls.
The tape recording of a lecture by police science instructor George Wright on the use of Mace was discovered earlier this year in the files of an investigator who worked for the Sheriff's Department intelligence unit, which answers only to Gates.
Wright unsuccessfully ran against Gates in 1978 and was considering running again when the recording was made without his knowledge in 1981.
"The case is closed," Deborah Burstion-Wade, spokeswoman for the Justice Department's Division of Civil Rights in Washington, said Wednesday in a telephone interview.
She said the Justice Department decided not to pursue the case because the five-year statute of limitations had expired.
The statute of limitations "is something that overrides whether or not there are merits" to the case, she said.
But Wright said he believes Justice Department officials "were looking for a reason to avoid doing anything. I think it was a whitewash."
Gates was out of town Wednesday but said through Sheriff's Department spokesman Lt. Dick Olson that he was pleased with the outcome.
The Wright tape was turned over March 27 by Gates' attorney under a court order to provide all investigative files on Wright and two other former opponents of the sheriff. The material was given to Wright's attorney, who was preparing for trial in a civil rights lawsuit, alleging that Gates used his office to harass and illegally spy on his critics.