LOS ANGELES — For many years, campaign contributors to Sheriff Brad Gates enjoyed an almost 100% chance of obtaining a permit to carry a concealed weapon if they applied.
Ty Ritter and his brother Frank, two Orange County bodyguards who never gave a dime to Gates and were turned down six times for concealed weapon permits, don't like those odds, which were calculated from a statistical analysis of Sheriff's Department records.
The Ritters contend in a 12-year-old federal lawsuit now headed for trial that Gates' gun permit policy for much of his 16-year-tenure was so capricious and riddled with cronyism that it denied the right to carry a concealed weapon to those who truly needed it.
"The policy is a mixed bag, but gun permits basically go to whomever Gates likes," said Ty Ritter, 43, of Irvine. "There are people out there who really need to protect themselves. Yet the sheriff is saying that he isn't going to let you protect yourself."
The lawsuit, which seeks $10 million in damages, is scheduled to begin with jury selection next Tuesday before U.S. District Judge William P. Gray. It marks the end of a controversial decade for Gates that has embroiled him in charges of spying on his political enemies and doling out concealed weapons permits to friends and supporters as if they were political thank-you notes.
The Ritters, who said they needed gun permits because some of their clients were in danger, charge that the sheriff's system of evaluating applicants was unfair and arbitrary, hence violating their constitutional right of due process.
Armed with the sheriff's own files, they allege that Gates gave gun permits to hundreds of his political supporters, business associates and other professionals he wanted to cultivate as supporters. The Ritters contend that many of them received gun permits for job-related dangers, while they were told a job-related danger was not a good enough reason.
"Gates was trying to curry political favor with the professional class," said Meir Westreich, the Ritters' attorney. "He handed out permits to moneyed people--bankers, developers, doctors, jewelers and ranchers."
The sheriff and his spokesmen have declined to discuss the allegations on the eve of trial. Eric L. Dobberteen, a private attorney representing Gates and the county, also did not want to comment on the allegations, except to say, "We are getting ready for trial and we will be ready on Sept. 11."
In court and in case documents, Gates has repeatedly denied any impropriety, saying the issuance of gun permits by his department is based on objective standards that comply with state law. Those statutes basically require applicants to be of good moral character and provide evidence that their lives are in danger.
Gates has steadily reduced the number of active concealed weapons permits issued by his department from more than 2,500 in the mid-1970s to no more than a few hundred. The cutbacks coincide with the litigation, but Gates has said in earlier interviews with the news media that the reductions resulted from his concern about violence and the number of handguns on the street.
Ty Ritter now runs a private foundation in Beverly Hills that retrieves kidnaped children from foreign countries. His 46-year-old brother Frank lives in Huntington Beach.
"When a client found out we couldn't carry guns under our jackets, he wouldn't hire us," said Ty Ritter. "We had to turn down tens of thousands of dollars worth of business."
The Ritters are the remaining plaintiffs in the lawsuit that was originally filed in June, 1979, by Preston Guillory, 45, a Santa Ana private investigator. The brothers joined the case in 1981 after they were denied a gun permit a sixth time.
In March, Guillory settled his portion of the case and another separate lawsuit alleging that the Sheriff's Department illegally monitored his activities and fabricated a criminal case against him in 1984.
Guillory, now of Riverside, received $475,000 from the county--$300,000 for himself and $175,000 for his lawyers. He is still pressing a similar espionage action against former Santa Ana Police Chief Raymond C. Davis and Santa Ana Police Lt. Michael Foote, which is set to be tried in federal court after the Ritter case.
The Guillory cases represent the second time in five years that the county has paid a substantial amount to settle a case charging that Gates used deputies to monitor and harass his political enemies. In 1986, Orange County Municipal Court Judge Bobby D. Youngblood, an outspoken critic of the sheriff, received $375,000.
In 1981, the gun permit case was dismissed by District Judge David Williams halfway through a jury trial for lack of evidence. But jurors interviewed by the news media afterward said they thought the system was unfair and questioned Gates' credibility.