SANTA ANA – Testimony came to an end Thursday in a multimillion wrongful termination suit trial brought by a group of former Orange County Sheriff’s Department higher-ups, as Sheriff Sandra Hutchens continued to deny targeting her former command staff members for layoffs.
During eight days of testimony spread over three months Hutchens detailed the budget woes faced by the department in 2009 shortly after she was appointed to replace disgraced former Sheriff Mike Carona, who was later sentenced to federal prison.
Dealing with deep budget deficits, Hutchens testified that she felt letting go of department higher-ups rather than rank-and-file was the safest option for the county.
The command staff members – former assistant sheriffs Jack Anderson and John Davis, along with former captains Brian Cossairt, Deana Bergquist and Robert Eason – argued that the sheriff didn’t follow proper protocol and allow them hearings to fight their dismissals.
The five former law enforcement officials served under Carona prior to his indictment on corruption charges, and allege that they were pushed out to make way for of those in the department favored by Hutchens.
During at-times heated questioning, attorney Joel Baruch, who is representing the former command staff members, pushed Hutchens to explain, in minute detail, how the layoffs came about, and why the sheriff chose the tactics she used to close the department’s multimillion deficit.
Hutchens said she was forced to carry out a major restructuring, combining some divisions within the department while trying to spare street-level deputies and investigators. The sheriff testified that she laid off higher-ups who were left without commands, or whose divisions could be led by someone with a lower rank. Hutchens said those who were laid off had not done anything wrong.
“None of it is fair. Being laid off is not fair. It’s not a decision I ever thought I would be faced with in law enforcement,” Hutchens said on Wednesday.
Baruch continually asked whether Hutchens considered alternatives to layoffs, such as defunding vacant positions or using civilian workers to run the county jails. The attorney also pushed Hutchens to explain why his clients were let go, while several highly-paid command staff members Hutchens had worked with during her time with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department remained.
“We could sit here all day and talk about what I could or couldn’t have done,” Hutchens said. “I made the moves to allow the department to move forward.”
Hutchens testified that she continually discussed the reorganization with her command staff, but made the final decision on exactly which people to lay off herself. Due to the size of the re-organization, Hutchens also said the county board of supervisors had to sign off.
“Did anyone ever suggest to you that you could lay off fewer people than you did to cover your budget shortfall?” Attorney Norman Watkins, who is representing the sheriff’s department and the county, asked the sheriff on Thursday morning.
“No,” Hutchens replied.
The former command staff members argued that after their dismissals they were wrongly tied to the Carona regime when Hutchens spoke during subsequent election campaigns about rebuilding the sheriff’s department “from the top down.”
The sheriff denied that those comments were a shot at her former command staff members, contending that they were more generally referring to the overall overhaul of the department in the wake of Carona’s departure.
The five former higher-ups are all seeking reinstatement and a combined millions in back pay.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Frederick P. Aguirre will ultimately make the final ruling in the non-jury trial.
However, it will be a few more months before that occurs. Attorneys have until Nov. 13 to file their final legal briefs and then until Dec. 4 to reply to the other sides brief.
Final oral arguments are scheduled for Dec. 18.
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