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Suspended O.C. Lawman Surfs, Jogs -- and Waits

An inquiry into Lt. Bill Hunt, who ran against Sheriff Carona, is now in its fifth month.

October 16, 2006|Garrett Therolf | Times Staff Writer

These are lonely days for the chief.

Four months ago, Lt. Bill Hunt was locked in a bitter and messy political showdown with his boss, Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona.

Now Hunt, suspended from his job the day after the election, is admittedly bored.

He's grown a goatee, developed a tan and rarely wears anything more formal than an "FBI Gym" T-shirt and shorts. When the cellphone rings to the theme song of television's "SWAT," it's just his attorney.

Days are filled with jogging, learning to surf and occasional lunches in San Clemente, where he remains familiar to the beach town's residents as their police chief. He's also an expert doodler. The Mike Tyson, Pamela Anderson and Bill Clinton caricatures he has drawn during the long hours in his Laguna Hills home are hilariously spot on.

"I'm getting paid, but I can't go to work. I can't go away on vacation. My job is to just sit here," Hunt said.

Since the announcement of his suspension in June, Hunt has reported to work twice. Both times were for interviews by investigators, a total of six hours of grilling. Hunt declined to say what questions were asked or answered.

Hunt was suspended the day after he failed to unseat Carona in a politically charged fight that created divides throughout the department. Carona was backed by most area politicians, but Hunt earned the support of the department's deputies. In the end, it was statements Hunt made during the campaign -- such as suggesting that Carona's administration had been tarnished by scandal -- that apparently led to his suspension.

Martin Mayer, an attorney advising Carona, has said that Hunt is under investigation for "public statements, actions and accusations that went beyond those which are protected by the 1st Amendment and could subject him to adverse employment action."

In an article published this month in the California State Sheriff's Assn. newsletter, Mayer lays out the case for firing law enforcement employees who occupy a "policymaking" role in the organization they seek to lead and who make statements that disrupt the operation of the organization.

When the investigation was originally announced, Carona said it would be concluded "sooner rather than later." Capt. Tim Board, a department spokesman, said Thursday that the investigation would be over in "days."

San Clemente Mayor G. Wayne Eggleston, a Hunt supporter, said: "The day after the election, Sheriff Carona stated that he wanted a speedy resolution. That was in June. This is now October. I'll have to have the public judge for themselves whether it's been speedy or not."

Eggleston and his council colleagues have protested to Carona, but he said the city had never considered breaking its contract with the Sheriff's Department to provide police services in the community. San Clemente disbanded its police force in 1993 for financial reasons.

Hunt, who earns $115,000 annually, said the support was appreciated but that he was preparing for the prospect that he will be out of a job.

"I can't be naive," he said.

He's thinking about the possibility that he may apply to be police chief in another city, but he said his family doesn't want to move from Orange County. Or he could go to work as a private investigator, but he wouldn't want to work in opposition to his old colleagues, he said.

So in the meantime, he busies himself at home with his wife and four children.

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garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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