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Carona Ally Feigned Authority in Airline Dispute, Sources Say

An O.C. sheriff's volunteer allegedly misrepresented himself and said he could have a baggage attendant fired.

May 10, 2006|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

An Orange County businessman and political ally of Sheriff Michael S. Carona allegedly misrepresented himself as a deputy sheriff to an airline employee during a dispute that began after he returned from a hunting trip and found his baggage -- including his guns and game meat -- were missing.

Stephen Mensinger, who has no police powers but is authorized to carry a badge as a civilian volunteer reserve, allegedly referred to the Alaska Airline attendant as a "dumb blond," snapped pictures of her with his cellphone and said he could have her fired.

The incident at John Wayne Airport was detailed by sources inside the Sheriff's Department familiar with official records. They spoke only on the condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation.

The confrontation came at a time when Carona was weathering a series of scandals within his reserve program, including the misuse of credentials. In one case, his personal martial-arts instructor was arrested for allegedly flashing his badge and gun at a group of golfers he thought were playing too slowly. In another, the owner of an upscale restaurant resigned in the midst of an internal affairs investigation into allegations he flashed his badge during a parking lot dispute.

The California attorney general's office is reviewing law-enforcement agencies' practice of issuing honorary badges to civilians who have little or no police training.

Mensinger, an executive for developer George Argyros, did not respond to requests for interviews.

Without elaborating, Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Caroline Boren confirmed that an incident occurred and that the attendant ultimately filed a report with the Sheriff's Department.

The Sheriff's Department, which has a policy of not speaking to The Times beyond details of breaking crime news, also declined to comment. The department denied access to or blacked out records related to the incident, citing exemptions under the California Public Records Act.

Mensinger is president and chief operations officer of Arnel Management Co., one of Southern California's largest apartment owners. The company is owned by Argyros, an Orange County developer and former U.S. ambassador to Spain who has contributed thousands of dollars to Republican candidates and committees.

Mensinger is a member of the sheriff's advisory council and Professional Services Division, a group of about 330 business executives and other professionals who have no police powers but are issued badges, sheriff's identification cards and, in some cases, permits to carry concealed weapons.

Mensinger was issued a gun permit in 2002 and applied for a renewal last year.

Like many professional services reserve deputies, Mensinger is a Carona political donor. He contributed $150 to the sheriff's inaugural 1998 campaign and $1,500 to the current campaign. Arnel Development Co., the parent of the management company, gave $1,000 to this year's campaign.

In September, sheriff's sources said, Mensinger walked into a small, secluded Alaska Airlines office adjacent to John Wayne Airport's baggage carousel to find out what happened to his luggage. The baggage attendant, who was in the middle of taking a claim from another passenger, suggested he double-check the carousel and fill out a claim, the sources said.

Mensinger seemed agitated and became so loud and insulting that one of her supervisors, whom she was talking to on the phone in an effort to find his baggage, asked "Who is that [expletive]?" the sources said.

The attendant responded with a sarcastic remark about hunters.

"I'm a sheriff!" he yelled, according to sources, who said he also suggested he could have her fired.

Typically, airline employees are trained to summon police if they feel threatened, an airline spokeswoman said. But, the Sheriff's Department sources said, the attendant feared that that would be of no use, since she was under the impression that Mensinger was with the Sheriff's Department, which patrols the airport.

An airline supervisor showed up and took Mensinger's claim; later that day, his luggage arrived.

The attendant called the Sheriff's Department and asked for Mensinger's badge number and learned he was an honorary reserve, sources said.

The department would not discuss Mensinger's status. His name was on a list of professional reserves in good standing released to The Times in late February.

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