By Shawn Raymundo
An audio recording of a June 25 traffic stop involving Mayor Pro Tem Gene James made public by a local media outlet has the elected official taped in a “confrontational” encounter with a deputy sheriff.
In the nearly 11-minute recording of the stop first published by Local Story TV, James, who campaigned on a pro law-enforcement stance, denied any wrongdoing, and was—as police describe in subsequent written reports—“confrontational,” “visibly upset” and “defensive,” while also accusing Deputy J. Medina of ulterior motives.
“I stopped you because you came off the freeway offramp without stopping before you made the right-hand turn,” Medina explained to James in the parking lot of the McDonald’s off Avenida Pico and the 5 Freeway. “Did you see the red light?”
“Look, of course, I saw the red light. If you think I didn’t stop, let’s just go with that. OK?” responded James.
“Because I know what this is about,” James added.
Replying, Medina asked the councilmember, “What is this about?”
“Your (expletive) boss, (Edward) Manhart,” James said, referring to San Clemente’s then-chief of police services.
After a brief pause, Medina said he didn’t know what James was talking about, nor did he know who the elected official was.
“All I know is, you ran that red light,” the deputy said.
San Clemente Times made multiple attempts to reach James for comment over the phone and through email, but as of this posting, he had not yet responded to those requests.
In the run-up to last year’s city council race in which James was seeking reelection, he campaigned for standing “with our sheriff deputies.” His campaign materials also touted the construction of a new OCSD substation at City Hall as an accomplishment.
“Under my leadership as your councilman, a new sheriff substation was approved and a new Public Safety Committee with community representation was created,” his website stated. “Let’s strengthen the bonds between our city and OCSD and not weaken them.”
The city on Tuesday, Sept. 21, is set to host a ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the opening of the new substation.
James demonstrated support for law enforcement during an April 2019 council meeting in which he, speaking then as a private citizen, slammed Councilmember Kathy Ward, the city’s current mayor, for making critical remarks about OCSD’s handling of the homelessness issue.
Responding to an interview request with the “John and Ken” radio show on KFI AM 640, Ward had stated in an email that “Our Council cares very much about the situation. It wasn’t until the sheriff’s ‘wussed’ out on us that programs stopped working.”
Irked by the use of the word “wuss” to describe the “brave and dedicated men and women” who serve as officers in San Clemente, James had demanded Ward issue an apology for her comments, which he called “grotesquely beneath contempt.”
“Blaming our deputies for inadequate measures and actions of the previous council is grotesquely beneath contempt,” he had said, later adding, “Ms. Ward, you owe the men and women of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department an apology. It’s called courage, class, ethics and leadership.”
Those comments and demands for an apology, however, contrast with James’ behavior as described by a pair of internal OCSD memos. Following the June 25 stop, Medina, along with his superior, Sgt. M. Hudson, filed reports directly with Manhart that outlined the elected official’s confrontational and defensive manner.
“I explained the reason I stopped him. Gene admitted he saw the red light and became confrontational and visibly upset,” Medina, recounting his experience with the councilmember, wrote in the memo.
“When Deputy J. Medina approached his vehicle, James was immediately on the defensive, making statements about knowing why he was pulled over,” wrote Hudson based on his own listening of the audio recording. He added that “James continued to raise his voice at (Medina).”
Hudson had been listening to Medina’s radio communications during the stop, when he overheard police dispatch confirm James as the owner of a gray pickup truck. He requested that Medina contact him immediately after the stop.
“I recognized the name as possibly San Clemente’s Interim Mayor. I waited for Deputy J. Medina to clear the car stop and advised him to call me asap,” Hudson wrote, later praising Medina. “I listened to Deputy J. Medina’s PVS audio. Deputy J. Medina was professional and explained in detail to James what he needed James to provide to him, and why he was stopped.”
For James, the late-June traffic stop wasn’t his first open disagreement with members of the sheriff’s department.
In a Facebook post in December 2019, weeks after being sworn in to office, James publicized his frustration with Sheriff Don Barnes, accusing the sheriff of failing to answer questions related to the enforcement of “service-resistant” homeless people.
James had written then that he saw Barnes make “conflicting statements” related to OCSD’s position on the subject, which “only muddied the waters further.” He added that communications with Barnes had the councilmember “pondering the city’s relationship with OCSD.”
“I have spoken with Sheriff Barnes, and there is no doubt in my mind he has an extreme level of frustration with San Clemente,” James had written in the Dec. 29, 2019 post. “His words to me in a recent meeting at his office were, ‘I have no obligation to provide law enforcement services to the City of San Clemente.’”
This past June, during a city council budget workshop meeting, an exchange between James and Manhart got heated when the councilmember cut the former chief off from finishing his objection to an idea James had floated moments earlier.
“When I look at one deputy costing us about … $325,000—I don’t want to send shockwaves through OCSD—but it appears, to reduce by one deputy, that would give us some leverage in the budget to do some other things,” James said.
Citing the protests that San Clemente and other cities throughout the nation saw last year, Manhart opposed such a proposal and explained that he was concerned with the thought of eliminating public safety positions.
“I don’t know if you were paying attention last year to all the civil unrest issues and how many deputies,” Manhart said. “Additionally, I would never support anything like that, but you’re going to do what you’ve got to do, but I would absolutely never recommend that.”
“Capt. Manhart, I was paying attention,” James later responded.
“Then that wouldn’t be an issue then,” Manhart said, “because we would not be talking about losing a deputy if you saw the challenges that we have …”
“OK, I’ve had it,” James interjected, holding his hand up. “OK, that’s enough.”
It would be a month and a half later when James would find himself in the parking lot of San Clemente’s McDonald’s challenging an officer’s decision to pull him over for an apparent traffic violation.
During the recording of the stop, James reaffirmed his innocence, stating that he did stop at the red light before again inferring that Medina had pulled over the councilmember because of Manhart.
“I stopped, but I know what this is about,” James said.
“You did not stop, sir. I would have had no reason to stop you if you had come to a complete stop like you were supposed to,” Medina responded. “I don’t know what you’re inferring.”
“Yes, you do,” James said.
“If you’d like to enlighten me, I’d be glad to hear it,” Medina said.
“Listening to James yell at Deputy J. Medina and accusing him of pulling him over for ulterior motives, as well as having to be told multiple times to provide his insurance information, made me thankful the interaction was recorded,” Hudson concluded in his memo to Manhart.
In an emailed statement regarding the incident, OCSD spokesperson Carrie Braun described the relationship between James and Manhart, who was reassigned to OCSD’s air support in mid-July, as a “professional working” one.
“Captain Manhart’s relationship with Councilman James was a professional working relationship,” Braun said in the email.
Answering a question on whether Manhart’s reassignment out of San Clemente had anything to do with James, Braun said, “Captain Manhart’s reassignment to the Air Support Unit was in no way related to this incident, and in fact was planned prior to the traffic stop.”
Braun declined to provide further comment related to the incident.
Since July 16, Capt. Tony Benfield has taken on the role of the city’s police chief.
Editor’s Note: The full recording of the June 25 traffic stop can be listened to here.
Shawn Raymundo is the city editor for the San Clemente Times. He graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in Global Studies. Before joining Picket Fence Media, he worked as the government accountability reporter for the Pacific Daily News in the U.S. territory of Guam. Follow him on Twitter @ShawnzyTsunami and follow San Clemente Times @SCTimesNews.