Orange County supervisors decided Wednesday to review their hiring of the lawyer who advised Sheriff Michael S. Carona that he could suspend his chief political opponent from the department.
At the end of a two-day hearing on the county's next budget, Supervisor Chris Norby asked that the board review the contract, including how much Martin J. Mayer had been paid. County Counsel Benjamin P. DeMayo told the supervisors the contract could be canceled immediately.
The issue is scheduled for Tuesday's board meeting.
The move was the latest fallout from Carona's decision to place electoral challenger Lt. Bill Hunt on paid leave a day after Carona won reelection to a third term.
Hunt is being investigated for "statements, actions and accusations" made during the campaign, which Carona contends are not protected by the 1st Amendment. There has been no explanation of what specific statements or actions may have been in violation.
According to a post-election memo Carona circulated in the department, Hunt's senior role made the sheriff question whether he could continue to serve effectively.
"Certain actions may or may not have undermined his ability to report in this role and assist me in my ability, as the sheriff, to run the department," said the memo, which was obtained by The Times. "This is a decision I have not taken lightly."
Carona also demoted two of Hunt's supporters in the department, though board chairman William Campbell said Wednesday that one had been restored to his position on probationary status.
The two deputies were among those Hunt listed as fearing retaliation in a report he e-mailed to the state attorney general's office in November.
The memo was provided by Judi Fouladi, an attorney who represented Hunt during the campaign.
Hunt was originally asked to write the report for the Sheriff's Department, but he feared that would expose his supporters to further retaliation.
"Politics were not a factor in any personnel decisions," Assistant Sheriff Jo Ann Galisky said Wednesday.
Hunt has been assigned for the last three years to supervise the 56 employees in San Clemente, one of many cities that contract with the department for police services.
Supervisors, who in December awarded Mayer a one-year, $100,000 contract, were caught off guard by the attorney's disclosure last week that he advised Carona "several months ago" that Hunt could be suspended, and are concerned about the county's financial liability if Hunt is fired and files suit.
Board members emerged from heated meetings with Mayer and Carona on Monday with mixed responses, Campbell deferring to the sheriff but Norby saying he was "looking at a number of different options." Mayer did not return a telephone call Wednesday seeking comment.
A key issue is Hunt's status as a civil servant and whether that affords him additional protection under the law.
Carona first asked the board last June to retain Fullerton-based Jones & Mayer to assist with issues stemming from a state board's decision to make 56 reserve deputies ineligible for service, but supervisors balked.
That issue was resolved by the time they relented in December, awarding the contract for legal assistance with "peace officer personnel matters."
Supervisors took pains at the time to note that the county, not the sheriff, was Mayer's client. But they received no briefings from Mayer and learned only last week that his work focused, at least in part, on Carona's chief opponent in the June 6 election.
Meanwhile, Hunt's supporters said they had launched a petition to recall the sheriff.
Tim Whitacre, a Hunt supporter and member of the county Republican Central Committee, criticized supervisors for awarding Mayer the contract.
"It might be legal, what he's doing, but it definitely isn't right," Whitacre said. "The political vendetta must not be allowed."