Editor’s Note: This is the second of a four-part series profiling the candidates for Merced County sheriff.
If elected, Jim Soria would be Merced County’s first Latino sheriff.
That’s been the 45-year-old Livingston city councilman’s central talking point on the campaign trail. Soria has talked about his ethnicity as a vehicle to criticize the Merced County Sheriff’s Department’s lack of racial diversity in upper-management positions.
“Where is the diversity at the department, in management (positions), where is it?” Soria asked the other candidates in a recent public debate. “I don’t see it.”
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Although the other three sheriff’s candidates, Pat Lunney, Frank Swiggart and Vern Warnke, have all pledged to improve the department’s racial makeup in top positions, Soria is the only candidate to make diversity a top campaign issue.
“I think there’s plenty of qualified people in Merced County and in neighboring counties that we could get to come here,” Soria said.
He declined to be interviewed for a Merced Sun-Star election profile.
But while Soria leads the diversity debate, questions over his qualifications and ability to navigate the county’s largest and most expensive department surround his candidacy.
He may be unqualified for an entry-level position at the department due to his criminal history and admitted dishonesty during his time as a Dos Palos police officer. During a recent public debate, Soria admitted the Sheriff’s Department has previously refused to hire him for a deputy position.
Soria admitted lying during a 2006 investigation into his conduct as a Dos Palos police officer. Soria refused to arrest a man who was wanted on a warrant. Instead of driving the suspect from Dos Palos to the county jail in Merced, Soria left him in a parking lot outside of town. When the incident was investigated by the Sheriff’s Department, Soria initially lied, saying he had nothing to do with the case and later blamed the incident on the city’s police chief.
He eventually admitted his role and apologized for lying after a sheriff’s detective told Soria there was video evidence linking him to the incident.
Soria pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge and served three years of probation. The conviction was later expunged from Soria’s record, but legal experts say his criminal history and admitted dishonesty would disqualify him from testifying in court as a reliable witness.
In previous interviews, Soria has admitted making “a mistake,” but blamed the entire incident on others in the Dos Palos Police Department and city management. Soria claimed he was a “whistleblower” who was punished for trying to expose mismanagement at the department.
“I was a crusader who crusaded against corruption,” Soria said.
Others in Dos Palos have said Soria lodged complaints against the department only after he had been suspended in connection with the criminal charges against him.
Soria’s ability to handle the department’s $43 million budget was questioned after he failed to file financial disclosure documents on time. Soria missed the deadline by more than a month. He became aware of the failure only when contacted by the Merced Sun-Star.
The state Fair Political Practices Commission plans to investigate Soria’s campaign after the election.
Soria blamed the failure on an undisclosed surgery he said he underwent in late February and his campaign manager being “out of town.” He has not elaborated on exactly when his campaign staff left town or how that contributed to being unaware that deadlines had been missed by more than a month.
Despite questionable qualifications and campaign missteps, Soria insists he’s ready to lead.
“I want to give back to my community,” Soria said. “My service comes from the heart.”
TUESDAY: A profile of candidate Frank Swiggart.