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O.C. sheriff outlines improvements since her takeover

October 07, 2008|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

More than 100 days into her tenure, Orange County Sheriff Sandra Hutchens said deputies' morale has improved, and she blamed her predecessor for the malaise that was sapping the department when she took office.

Hutchens did not mention Michael S. Carona by name in a meeting with reporters Monday, but a department spokesman said she had the former sheriff in mind when she said accountability starts at the top. She blamed him for a culture that allowed top-ranking managers to sidestep accountability.

"There was a lack of leadership from what I saw," Hutchens said. "There was turmoil at the top of the organization and a lack of focus. There were individuals not doing their jobs and who felt they could not be held accountable."

The department was in disarray, policies and procedures ignored, she said. Employees "felt beat up" by the unceasing news coverage of Carona's legal troubles, grand jury investigations of the department-run jails and probes by other law enforcement agencies, Hutchens said.

Carona resigned in January to concentrate on his upcoming federal corruption trial. Jury selection is underway in the case.

George Jaramillo, former assistant sheriff and Carona's top administrator, pleaded no contest in Orange County Superior Court to lying to a grand jury and unauthorized use of a county helicopter. He served one year in jail. Jaramillo also pleaded guilty in federal court to tax charges and agreed to testify against Carona.

Donald Haidl, another former assistant sheriff and fundraiser for Carona, also pleaded guilty to federal tax charges and is cooperating with prosecutors in their case against the former sheriff. Haidl was once one of Carona's closest associates.

Hutchens outlined in broad terms the changes she has made so far in the department and will deliver a State of the Department report to the Board of Supervisors today, her 110th day in office. That assessment will be a more complete rundown of the top to bottom changes she has made.

On Monday, Hutchens said she was surprised to learn that "mechanisms that you would expect to be in place" to identify "rogue employees" early on were missing.

That has changed, and deputies have gotten the message of accountability, she said. Hutchens said she has also identified training needs and moved to address them. One area that needed improvement, she said, was leadership assessment of the department's sergeants who fill key supervisory ranks.

In a major change, Hutchens said, she has adopted a hands-off policy of sorts when issuing concealed weapons permits. A special unit is reviewing more than 1,000 permits issued by Carona and will decide if an applicant should be allowed to carry a weapon.

Hutchens said there is still room for improvement and that employees are reacting positively to the changes. Previous attempts to make changes in the department were "short-stopped at the top levels," she said.

"It was referred to as the black hole. Nothing would get done."

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hgreza@latimes.com

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