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Unflattering portrait of Carona painted for jurors

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Prosecutors on Tuesday painted a disturbing picture of former Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona's management of California's second-largest sheriff's department, citing testimony that he accepted secret cash payments, had numerous illicit sexual affairs, and provided badges and concealed weapons licenses to campaign contributors.

In his closing argument, Assistant U.S. Atty. Kenneth Julian told a jury of 11 men and one woman that Carona sold his office to Newport Beach businessman Donald Haidl even before he was elected, promising Haidl full access to the department in exchange for tens of thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions.

In addition, Julian said, Haidl allowed Carona to use his private jet and yacht, bought him custom-tailored suits, gave him a powerboat and then started paying him $1,000 a month in cash, money the sheriff told Haidl he used to buy jewelry for his mistress and to pay rent on an office in which they had sex.

"He's getting a taste of wealth and he likes it," Julian said.

At the start of his closing argument, defense lawyer Jeffrey Rawitz told jurors that Haidl -- who has pleaded guilty to tax charges -- falsely accused Carona to win a lenient sentence. Rawitz is expected to complete his argument today.

"They all understand the game. The game is to lay it all on Mike," Rawitz said during the first hour of his closing before court adjourned for the day. "They all lie because they have to implicate Mr. Carona in things he was not implicated in."

Julian said Haidl was thrilled to have the power of a badge and the connections to assist those close to him. Although he took the assistant sheriff job as a volunteer, Haidl did receive a county car valued at about $5,000 per year. The car was outfitted with emergency lights and siren.

"This is a cop car you can drive around Newport Beach drunk as a skunk and nobody's going to stop you," Julian said. "You shouldn't be able to buy that."

Carona, 53, is charged with conspiracy, mail fraud and witness tampering for allegedly attempting to persuade Haidl to lie to a federal grand jury. If convicted of all charges, he could be sentenced to more than five years in prison. He has been free on bond throughout the proceedings.

After he was elected, Carona asked the Board of Supervisors to ease county requirements that would have prevented the inexperienced Haidl from being an assistant sheriff.

"He didn't tell the Board of Supervisors he was receiving cash payments from Don Haidl. He didn't tell the Board of Supervisors he cheated to win the election," Julian said. "Your common sense tells you if he did tell them, they wouldn't have changed the rules."

The Santa Ana courtroom of U.S. Dist. Judge Andrew J. Guilford was filled to capacity during the summations, with dozens of people following proceedings by live video in a second courtroom. The case, which has lasted two months, could end up in the jury's hands this afternoon.

While making his point to jurors, Julian identified a stream of benefits that Haidl allegedly paid Carona. More than $300,000 went to Carona's mistress, Debra V. Hoffman, to help her struggling law firm. She and Carona's wife, Deborah, are awaiting a separate trial.

"In a free market economy, something is worth what the buyer is willing to pay the seller," Julian said. "In this case, Don Haidl shelled out $430,000 to the willing seller and that is Mike Carona."

When Haidl's teenage son was arrested in a highly publicized sexual assault case, Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo lobbied Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas to try the boy in Juvenile Court. Although Jaramillo was unsuccessful, the case illustrated the influence that Haidl had purchased, Julian said.

During a final argument that lasted three hours and 20 minutes, Julian punctuated his points by playing excerpts from a secretly recorded conversation in which Carona and Haidl discussed cash payments and concern about the ongoing federal investigation.

The secret recording, which Haidl made as part of a plea agreement with prosecutors, was a focal point of the government's case against Carona. During the lunch meeting, Carona reassured Haidl that nothing was traceable -- "Not even close to being a trail," he said. He also asked whether Haidl's company photocopied its cash.

"There's only one reason why Michael Carona would be concerned about copying serial numbers on cash and that's because he got the cash," Julian said.

At one point in the conversation, Carona told Haidl that he was not concerned about the federal investigation and that he slept real well at night.

"The reason Mike Carona sleeps real well at night . . . up to this moment in his life, he has lied, he has cheated, and he has gotten away with it. No consequences. It has worked before," Julian said.

He said Haidl was a straightforward and believable witness whose accounts have remained consistent and are supported by the recording.

"Under cross-examination for five days, his testimony did not change," Julian said.

Carona resigned in January 2008 after serving nine years as sheriff. The Board of Supervisors appointed Sandra Hutchens, a former executive with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, as his replacement. Her term expires in 2010.

Since taking office, Hutchens has moved to repair the department's tarnished image. She recalled badges that Carona had issued to volunteer deputies and prepared to withdraw hundreds of concealed weapons permits approved by her predecessor. Many of the people issued weapons permits had made financial contributions to Carona's campaigns.

Attorneys were expected to conclude closing arguments today and allow jurors to begin deliberations.

stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

christine.hanley@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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