Tuesday, June 19, 2007
Election Opponent Sues O.C. Sheriff, Claims First Amendment Violation
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A former Orange County sheriff’s lieutenant who unsuccessfully ran for Orange County sheriff-coroner against incumbent Michael S. Carona last June has sued, alleging he was demoted in retaliation for remarks he made during his political campaign.
In a civil rights action filed in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, now-retired William J. (Bill) Hunt is seeking both monetary compensation and reinstatement to the lieutenant post from which he was demoted last December.
Hunt’s allegations include that the defendants, Carona and the County of Orange, violated his right of free speech under the federal and state constitutions, and his statutory rights as a county employee and public safety officer to engage in political activities without the county’s interference.
The suit originates from the Sheriff-Coroner’s Department’s decision to place Hunt on administrative leave the day after Carona won reelection, pending a personnel investigation into his speech and conduct during his campaign against Carona.
At the time, Hunt had been with the department for about 21 years, was in his third year as a lieutenant and was serving an assignment as police services chief for the City of San Clemente. In his challenge against Carona, he succeeded in obtaining only 26.5 percent of the vote, while the incumbent garnered 50.9 percent and avoided a runoff.
Hunt’s placement on administrative leave lasted five months, during which time the department examined public statements, radio addresses, press releases, and campaign literature in which he criticized Carona’s performance as sheriff.
Criticisms included remarks to newspapers describing Carona as “the cause of all of the problems” and the department’s leadership as “a laughingstock,” as well as assertions in a radio interview that Carona had “failed as a leader.”
In October, Hunt was served with a notice of pending demotion that cited him for violating a string of departmental polices, rules and regulations.
For example, the notice stated, he violated the department’s policy of fostering public support and citizen cooperation with its programs and procedures, and the requirement that officers maintain loyalty to the department. He was also charged with violating numerous ethical standards, such as a prohibition against being “disrespectful, insolent, mutinous, or insubordinate in attitude or conduct.”
After reciting the evidence, the notice concluded that Hunt’s actions “smeared co-workers and fostered discontent and controversy,” and told him:
“You have shown yourself to be an employee who allows your own ego and disgruntled feelings to overcome your professionalism and loyalty to this Department and your superiors. You have shown yourself to be willing to slander, undermine, and damage this agency for the sole purpose of gaining office.”
Following a pre-disciplinary hearing, Hunt was demoted on Dec. 22, pursuant to the October notice, to the rank of “Deputy Sheriff II.” He was also relieved of his assignment as overseeing police services for San Clemente.
Hunt’s complaint states that his demotion resulted in him being subjected to the
“intolerable and discriminatory working conditions” of drastically lower pay—his annual salary was reduced by about $46,000—reduced benefits and prospective retirement compensation, changed conditions of employment and “personal and professional humiliation and indignity.”
Santa Monica attorney Richard A. Levine, who is representing Hunt along with fellow Silver, Hadden, Silver, Wexler & Levine partner Stephen H. Silver, remarked in a statement:
“We will be demonstrating that Carona’s action was a case of political vindictiveness at its worst, and regrettably at the taxpayer’s expense.”
Spokespersons for the county could not be reached for comment.
Copyright 2007, Metropolitan News Company