SANTA ANA – Carlos Bustamante, a former rising star in Orange County political circles, will begin a stint behind bars next month, after a judge on Friday sentenced him to a year in jail for multiple sex-related charges.
Along with the jail sentence, Bustamante — a former Santa Ana City Councilman and Orange County Public Works administrator — received five years probation, is required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life, and has been ordered to stay away from the seven female subordinates he admitted to making unwanted sexual advances toward.
Bustamante kept his head bowed and his eyes closed as the sentence was handed down by Judge John D. Conley. The hearing came a month after Bustamante pleaded guilty to three felony counts of attempted sexual battery, stalking and grand theft — for stealing more than $3,100 in tax funds — as well as several misdemeanor charges.
Bustamante will begin serving his sentence on Feb. 26. With credit for good behavior, he could be free within six months.
Just prior to the sentencing, a county attorney sharply criticized Bustamante for failing to live up to the trust local leaders placed in him as he rose quickly through the ranks.
“It is no comfort that the defendant is now the local poster child for abuse of power,” Assistant County Council James C. Harman said.
“The good and honest people in Orange County get tarred for their association with the defendant.”
Prosecutors said they sought the approval of the seven victims before offering a plea deal, which they noted would spare the women the need to testify in court and relive their experiences.
“Mr. Bustamante had to sit in court and admit he was not innocent of the charges, but guilty,” Deputy District Attorney Aleta Bryant said. “He had to take responsibility.”
During the earlier December hearing when Bustamante pleaded guilty, prosecutors read letters from two victims explaining how the unwanted sexual attention impacted them both emotionally and professionally.
“Never did I imagine that I would be treated the way you treated me. Everything you did to me affected my job and home life,” one woman wrote to Bustamante. “I was terrified every minute you were in the office.”
Bustamante declined to comment during or after Friday’s hearing. But his attorney, Brent Romney, said the plea deal took away the risk of a prison sentence had the case gone to trial, and will allow Bustamante to move on with his life.
“He is very upbeat, more than most clients I have,” Romney said. “He is a very strong and talented individual.”
Prosecutors alleged that over an eight-year period, Bustamante would lure women into his county office and would kiss, hug and touch them inappropriately. Many of the women were initially afraid to come forward due to Bustamante’s influence in county political circles.
“The word ‘untouchable’ came up again and again, that he had connections up to the state government,” Bryant said.
Romney said he is close to making a deal for Bustamante to pay to serve his time at a city jail rather than county lockup. The attorney declined to say which city jail, but did indicate that it would not be Santa Ana, because of Bustamante’s extensive ties in the city.
Since the now self-employed Bustamante still occasionally does business with the county, his attorney clarified with the judge that the protection orders barring Bustamante from interacting with the women he victimized only applies to willful contact.
“Mr. Bustamante’s concern is that he can walk into a county building and go to a public window… I don’t want him to be brought back in here because some overzealous individual claims he violated a protective order,” Romney said.
“I’m sure if he goes in and sees one of the women, then he will leave.”
Since losing his $170,000-a-year county job, Bustamante has reportedly struggled to rebuild his life. His attorney said he hopes to reduce the felony convictions to misdemeanors after completing his probation.
“I think he will be fine,” Romney said when asked about Bustamante’s future. “He will do everything he is supposed to do, and he will move on with his life.”
Prosecutors said they were pleased with the outcome of the case, noting that if they had gone to trial on the remaining charges, Bustamante only realistically faced a maximum sentence of around 5 years in prison.
“I want to thank all victims and witnesses who bravely came forward in the face of fear and retaliation from a well-connected politician,” said District Attorney Tony Rackauckaus in a statement released shortly after the verdict.
“No one is above the law, especially those who abuse their power of authority over their subordinates to sexually assault and harass them.”
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