I’ve watch a 51-year carnival of political corruption here in Orange County, punctuated most recently by the former mayor of our largest city pleading guilty to corruption charges, while a well-known lobbyist prepares to be sentenced for crimes in the same city.
Arriving in late 1972 as a young reporter, I soon learned that District Attorney Cecil Hicks and his deputy, Michael Capizzi, were eager to identify and prosecute miscreants who shamed their office. And while both rarely hesitated to target those believed to be criminals, more often than not it was federal prosecutors who took down many OC elected officials over the years.
First to take the walk of shame was a civilian, Dr. Louis Cella. More wheeler-dealer than healer, Cella had teamed up with Richard J. O’Neill, whose family sold their ranch to be developed as Mission Viejo. Dick and Doc, as headline writers called them, were major investors in a new hospital in south county. Unknown to Dick—a maverick Democrat in then-majority GOP Orange County—Cella (a medical doctor) was churning out fake Medicare invoices from a printing press in the hospital basement. Indicted and convicted of fraud in 1976, upon parole he spent his final years in a tiny desert community medical clinic.
Soon thereafter, Andrew Hinshaw, who had been elected to Congress in a south county district after serving as county assessor, was convicted of bribery.
The other member of Congress to leave office in disgrace was John Schmitz.
Schmitz in many ways epitomized hard-right conservative politics in the county in the 1970’s. A former Marine Corps pilot and member of the John Birch Society, Schmitz had a wry sense of humor and could be charming in personal interactions. But as the Eagles song goes, his smile was a thin disguise for a man who at his core was anti-Semitic and authoritarian in outlook and later, in speech.
But it was sex that undid Schmitz (who regularly emphasized his Catholic religion) when it was revealed he had fathered two children out of wedlock. Schmitz acknowledged the children, but as he left office sometimes seemed oblivious to the depth of disgust heaped upon him from both opponents and former supporters. Schmitz moved to Virginia and ran a political memorabilia store in Washington DC until his death in 2001.
At the board of supervisors, it seemed for much of the 70’s and 80’s board members who left either with a conviction or under a cloud of suspicion outnumbered their compatriots. Robert Battin was first in 1975, convicted of illegally using county staff for a political campaign, followed in 1977 by Ralph Diedrich, found guilty of receiving a bribe from a land developer. Phil Anthony went down the same year for money laundering but a few years later staged a comeback, winning election to the Orange County Water District. Bruce Nestande resigned from the board in 1987 allegedly forced out due to shady dealings with fireworks mogul Patrick Moriarity. And Don Roth resigned in 1993, accused of conflict of interest in voting.
As the year 2000 neared in the OC, there was a new sheriff in town, Michael Corona. Media-savvy and opportunistic, Corona was catapulted into national fame after organizing the swift arrest of a child killer—Larry King dubbed him “America’s Sheriff,” and he was soon mentioned as a potential candidate for statewide office. Alas, Corona had a dark side and exceedingly poor judgement in how he used department resources, as well as in selecting aides.
George Jaramillo became Corona’s assistant after helping him get elected. Within just four years, after accusations of misuse of funds, a grand jury indicted Jaramillo on charges of bribery. He was later convicted of tax fraud. Jaramillo was also entangled with Don Haidl, who Corona brought into the top echelon of the sheriff’s office despite Haidl’s complete lack of law enforcement expertise. It later came to light Corona was giving sheriff’s badges and concealed carry permits to donors and taking bribes from Haidl. Corona was also accused of using the department helicopter for personal trips.
Rounding out the salacious history of the Corona scandal, a video tape surfaced showing Haidl’s teenage son and other boys raping an unconscious young woman on a pool table. Corona reportedly pressured Jaramillo to go easy on the boy, but he was tried for the incident. America’s Sheriff ended his career in a federal prison in Colorado after his 2009 conviction for witness tampering.
And no story of Orange County corruption could be complete without the sad (and for county taxpayers, expensive) saga of Robert Citron. As county treasurer Citron had magically run up astounding returns on the county’s investment pool. Few electeds questioned how, but gladly accepted the extra money year after year, ignoring the fact that Citron was an odd duck with little apparent fiscal expertise.
Like the Wizard of Oz, Citron’s curtain was ripped away in December 1994, when there was a run on the county investment pool—Citron had bet wrong on interest rates and was losing money by the boatload, forcing the county to declare bankruptcy. Citron pled guilty to six felonies and spent a year in house arrest. He died in 2013.
Was OC’s level of political scandal and corruption unique? Doubtful, looking to the immediate and far north of Los Angeles County and San Francisco, with long and colorful instances of both. What may have made OC different was its relative youth—not much more than a farm county until the post World War II development boom, thus lacking many of the civic/family/financial institutions in older communities that provided generations of leadership and considered judgement. Let’s just hope the next fifty years are an improvement.
Michael Stockstill has observed Orange County politics as a journalist and public affairs executive since 1972. He is the co-author of a book on the history of the Irvine Ranch. Now retired, he resides in Irvine.
Opinions expressed in community opinion pieces belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.
Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue or others please email firstname.lastname@example.org.