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Bustamante case highlights weaknesses in O.C.'s handling of workplace issues

Allegations that the ex-county official had harassed female workers were apparently ignored and mishandled for nearly a year before criminal charges were filed.

July 22, 2012|By Nicole Santa Cruz and Christine Mai-Duc, Los Angeles Times
  • Santa Ana City Councilman Carlos Bustamante was arrested July 2 and has been booked on suspicion of sexually assaulting seven women.
Santa Ana City Councilman Carlos Bustamante was arrested July 2 and has… (Orange County district…)

Just months before he was handcuffed and taken to jail, Carlos Bustamante was his usual relaxed, confident self when he joined a couple of his Santa Ana City Council colleagues for a boxing match at the Phoenix Club.

As he walked into the packed arena with Councilwoman Michele Martinez, she asked if everything was OK. She'd heard that he was in serious trouble — that even the chair in his old county office had been hauled away as evidence by the authorities.

For years, rumors had swirled about Bustamante's conduct with women. They'd surfaced when he ran for county supervisor in 2007 and again when he abruptly resigned his $178,277-a-year-job as an executive in the county.

Bustamante told her the same thing he told everyone else: It's just not true.

But on July 2, just before Bustamante was due at a City Council meeting, the 47-year-old father of three was booked on suspicion of false imprisonment and sexually assaulting at least seven women over an eight-year period. Prosecutors say there are 12 other women whose complaints about Bustamante cannot be pursued because the allegations are too old.

The question that's now being asked is whether his bosses at the county Civic Center were slow to act. For about a year, county officials had, on-and-off, looked into complaints that Bustamante, an executive in the county public works department, had sexually assaulted women in his office.

The earliest probe — more than 16 months ago — was handed off to one of Bustamante's subordinates. There's no record that it resulted in any action. Another was farmed out to a law firm and quietly filed away. Only after an internal county auditor took it upon himself to look into the complaints was the case handed over to the district attorney.

Prosecutors say their months-long investigation revealed that Bustamante would lure the women to his corner office, close the door and hug, kiss and touch them. The women were told that his office was soundproof, and sometimes he would pin them against the wall and masturbate in their presence, authorities said.

Investigators say they want to know how Bustamante's behavior went undetected for so long and why the anonymous complaints and rumors didn't result in quicker action.

"We want to know how this wolf was kept in charge of his prey for so long," said Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas. "How he was able to get away with a perverse abuse of power and position for the last eight years."

Bustamante — a Santa Ana native who graduated from Mater Dei High School — appeared to have it all when he arrived on the Orange County political scene. He was an Air Force veteran and former state alcohol control agent. He was charismatic, had a broad smile, a loving wife and children he loved to talk about.

When he was elected to the Santa Ana City Council in 2004, he was seen as the new face of the Republican Party. Already a ranking county employee, his council job gave him broader exposure and some saw him as a political natural who might someday go on to become a member of Congress.

He hosted then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger at his home in 2005 and, two years later when he ran for county supervisor, he was considered the favorite.

But rumors about Bustamante's conduct behind closed doors began to surface, and eventually, his lawyer sent a cease-and-desist letter to opponents to keep them from spreading allegations that he'd been accused of sexual harassment when he worked at the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control in the late '90s and had fathered a child out of wedlock. He attached the results of a DNA test to prove he wasn't the child's father.

On election day, political newcomer Janet Nguyen won the seat. Bustamante ended up fourth.

The next year he resigned from two state commissions to which he'd been appointed by Schwarzenegger — including one that deals with civil rights and discrimination in the workplace — after allegedly making a sexist joke after the appointment of Sandra Hutchens as Orange County's new sheriff. Bustamante denied making the quip.

"I think that politics is not a forgiving business," said Jon Fleischman, a conservative blogger who is familiar with Orange County politics. "When you win, you move up and on to the next big challenge. When you lose, you're pretty much out. And that's what happened to Carlos Bustamante."

In March 2011, an anonymous complaint about Bustamante was sent to Supervisor Bill Campbell and Jess Carbajal, Bustmante's boss in the county public works department. Though it was only a paragraph long, it raised questions about Bustamante's behavior with women behind the closed door of his office.

At the direction of county Chief Executive Tom Mauk, the complaint was handed off to a human resources representative who worked in the public works department and was a subordinate of Bustamante, according to a lawyer who represents Carbajal.

The investigation did not result in any discipline.

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