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Sheriff's Captain Agrees to Plea Deal

Christine Murray must mail apologies to peers she asked to support Carona's reelection.

April 15, 2006|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

In exchange for having criminal charges dropped, an Orange County sheriff's captain agreed Friday to perform community service, cooperate in an internal investigation and write letters of regret to colleagues she asked to support Sheriff Michael S. Carona's reelection.

The deal between state prosecutors and Capt. Christine Murray, disclosed during a brief court hearing, marks a pivotal -- if anticlimactic -- turn in the case, sparing Murray and Carona a trial that promised to be divisive.

Carona has been hounded by controversy and scandal in recent months and the trial could have created further distraction for a politician seeking a third term as Orange County's top cop.

"We're relieved to have this behind Capt. Murray," said her attorney, Jennifer Keller. "She's going to maintain her spotless record. We're happy it's resolved."

Senior Assistant Atty. Gen. Gary W. Schons, the lead prosecutor in the case, said the terms of the settlement speak for themselves.

"We agreed to this settlement because we believe it satisfied the objectives of the prosecution, which was to demonstrate that allegations of activity in violation of the law, in this case, the solicitation of employees for political contributions, will be taken seriously," he said.

Murray, a decorated investigator, was charged last year with 16 misdemeanor counts of soliciting campaign donations on behalf of the sheriff from fellow deputies and civilian employees in the department. She pleaded not guilty and her trial was scheduled to begin this month.

Typically, the district attorney's office would prosecute local criminal matters. But in this case, the attorney general's office agreed to handle the prosecution because of the potential for conflict.

One of Carona's chief advisors is also an advisor to Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas. Michael J. Schroeder was among 29 potential witnesses the prosecution had planned to call to testify.

The list also included Carona's campaign manager, John Lewis, two former assistant sheriffs and 17 other ranking department officials.

Under the agreement, Murray must perform 40 hours of community service for the Orange County registrar of voters, sitting at polling stations during the June primary and November elections. She was given credit for time served during the primary election earlier this week for the state's 35th Senate District.

Murray must also mail letters by month's end to 16 employees she contacted, acknowledging that she called them at home to solicit their support and endorsement of Carona's reelection. Further, the letter promises that Murray will avoid conversations that might be misunderstood or cause discomfort.

The letter, which stops short of admitting to anything illegal, was read in open court by Schons. It said, in part:

"I understand that soliciting your endorsement, given my position as a captain in a hierarchical organization like the Sheriff's Department, might have made you uncomfortable because the sheriff and perhaps other ranking officers, such as myself, might make decisions which affect your career and position in the department ... If my call affected you in this way, I regret it."

Under the final term of the deal, Murray must cooperate with an ongoing investigation by the department's Professional Standards Division into the removal of an employee list from an office computer.

After all of the conditions are fulfilled, Schons said he would make a motion to dismiss the charges.

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