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Ex-sheriff's lieutenant sues over demotion

Bill Hunt, who ran in '06 against Michael S. Carona, says remarks drew retribution.

June 19, 2007|Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writer

A former Orange County Sheriff's lieutenant sued the county and Sheriff Michael S. Carona on Monday, saying he was unfairly demoted for criticizing the sheriff while campaigning against him for the department's top job last year.

Bill Hunt was placed on administrative leave the day after the June 6, 2006, election in which Carona was reelected, narrowly avoiding a runoff with 50.9% of the vote. Hunt placed second in the four-way race, with 26.5%.

Hunt, a 21-year veteran of the department who had been serving as the sheriff's chief of police services in San Clemente, quit six months after the election rather than accept his demotion to patrol officer in Stanton.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, alleges that the demotion was retaliation for Hunt's campaign comments and violates his rights to free speech and political activity. Hunt is asking for at least $73,000 in damages for salary he lost because of the demotion, as well as reinstatement to his former position.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday August 07, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 103 words Type of Material: Correction
District attorney suit: A June 19 article in the California section of some editions, about a lawsuit alleging that Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona unfairly demoted a political opponent, stated that a court arbitrator in a similar case had reinstated Deputy Dist. Atty. Wally Wade after he alleged he had been demoted by his boss, Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas. Wade was not reinstated to his former position. The article also stated that another prosecutor, also one of Rackauckas' political foes, was ordered reinstated to her former position. She was ordered returned to the district attorney's office, but not to her former position.

"We think it's political vindictiveness," said Richard Levine, Hunt's lawyer. "We feel it's a very strong case of retaliation. Certainly that can't be tolerated."

Undersheriff Jo Ann Galisky said the suit was without merit and that it was unfair to portray the sheriff's actions as retaliation.

"It's been a year since Sheriff Carona decisively won reelection to a third term," she said. "The department is focused on putting election turmoil and politically motivated attacks behind us."

Said Chris Norby, chairman of the Board of Supervisors: "Every citizen has free speech and the right to seek political office. But the sheriff has certain managerial powers over his department. There's a fine line between the two, and apparently Sheriff Carona and Lt. Hunt disagree on where that line should be drawn."

Hunt joins a long line of Orange County public officials who have unsuccessfully challenged their bosses in an election and wound up suing over subsequent demotions or transfers. The cases have had mixed results.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Wally Wade and three of his supporters sued Orange County, alleging that they were demoted in retaliation for Wade's campaign against Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas in 2002. An arbitrator reinstated Wade, but a judge dismissed the legal claims of his supporters and said Rackauckas had acted within his rights. An appeals court ordered a fourth prosecutor who had backed Wade reinstated to her former position.

Kareem Crayton, a professor of law and political science at USC, said Hunt's case will come down to the content of his statements and the purpose of the policies the department said he violated.

A policy against insubordination couldn't be used to punish a candidate for criticizing the department's leadership because that "is at the core of political speech," he said, but if the officer discussed details of an ongoing criminal investigation, that could get him in trouble.

During last year's campaign for sheriff, Hunt made several critical comments about Carona's leadership, saying that numerous controversies had given the department a black eye and that the sheriff had failed as a leader.

The department said Hunt's comments were not protected by the 1st Amendment and violated departmental policies governing loyalty, conduct toward superior officers, standards of conduct, the handling of confidential information and dealings with the news media.

Jody Armour, a USC law professor who teaches tort law, said such policies gave managers wide latitude to discipline people they don't like.

The policies "are so open-ended, so malleable and subject to discretionary interpretation by the decision maker that they allow almost unbridled room for abuse," he said. "I can understand why those in power would do this. I'm just surprised they would do this in such a conspicuously inappropriate way."

christian.berthelsen

@latimes.com

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