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'America's sheriff' caught Bush administration's eye, met with Karl Rove

Two of his former aides are facing criminal prosecution. Federal agents have subpoenaed his financial and administrative records. State investigators are examining his conduct with women.

And he's the sheriff.

Scandals and controversies have clouded Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona's public and private lives, dimming the prospects of a man whose political future once seemed unlimited.

Carona's official biography describes him as "America's sheriff," the handle CNN's Larry King gave him after the successful hunt for the killer of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, whose kidnap-murder captivated the nation.

The sheriff's camera-grabbing performance in the 2002 case made him an overnight sensation in Republican circles -- a would-be contender for lieutenant governor and rumored candidate for a Bush administration post.

He met with White House political strategist Karl Rove to plot career moves.

But as Carona prepares for what could be a tougher-than-expected reelection drive, America and higher office will have to wait.

"It's a matter of whether he can rehabilitate himself," said Republican political consultant Kevin Spillane, who had predicted big things for Carona in his post-Runnion glory days.

Rehabilitation would require Carona to overcome a siege of allegations and embarrassing disclosures. Many center on bribery and election-law charges against two sheriff's officials, and accusations that Carona sexually harassed two women.

Others have raised doubts about a life-shaping story he has often told of finding his mother dead from alcoholism.

And while Carona has not been charged with breaking the law, the turmoil around him has fueled criticism of his judgment, character and use of authority.

The sheriff declined to be interviewed for this story because he believes The Times has "fabricated" material about him in the past, said Michael Schroeder, his unpaid attorney and political advisor. Schroeder, a former chairman of the California Republican Party, said Carona has done nothing wrong, remains popular in Orange County and will be reelected.

Spillane and other analysts agree that Carona begins his bid for a third term as the favorite, in large part because of the county's low crime rate and the scant name recognition of his election opponents.

But Carona's challengers have been given plenty of ammunition, said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

"Taken individually, these things aren't fatal," Pitney said, "but taken together, they could add up to real trouble."

In addition to the pending prosecution of an assistant sheriff and captain, and a state investigation into the sexual harassment allegations, The Times has learned that federal officials have subpoenaed records from Carona's reserve deputy program and election committee.

And America's sheriff may even have a Russian problem.

Photographs have surfaced of Carona cradling a young woman in his arms during a 2002 Moscow trip, and of her wearing the sheriff's uniform jacket in a hotel.

Schroeder said the woman was an official translator and the photos are innocent.

But the images, obtained by The Times, published in the OC Weekly and linked to an anti-Carona website, have not helped to restore his reputation, critics and others say.

The married Carona has portrayed himself as a Christian conservative, saying his "personal relationship with Jesus" is the most important thing in his life, followed by his family.

"A picture is worth a thousand words," said Jim Moreno, Orange County regional director for the Democratic Party. "There's a thread that continues through each of these stories, and I think it's probably poor judgment."

Not so, said Shawn Steel, another former state Republican chairman. He said "there are no dark secrets" about the sheriff, and his standing with voters is solid.

"Mike is a very, very popular guy," Steel said.

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Carona, 50, is charismatic and well-spoken, a balding, squarely built man who spends time in the gym and prefers his uniform to business suits. He is at his best when addressing a roomful of constituents, engaging them as both a tough-talking crime fighter and empathetic community-builder.

The sheriff has earned praise for launching one of the state's first Amber alert systems and for promoting treatment for jailed drug addicts.

Carona's original campaign resume showcased his brains, perhaps because he had no street-cop experience. The resume listed three college degrees, numerous education certificates, and his membership in Mensa, the organization of people with high IQs.

That was in 1998, when the Santa Monica native jumped from a largely invisible job as the county's appointed marshal to succeed longtime Sheriff Brad Gates, who retired. Carona won a second term in 2002 without opposition.

Today, considering his smarts, even some of Carona's early supporters are baffled at his missteps as head of California's second-largest Sheriff's Department.

Mario Rodriguez, a prominent Republican businessman who backed Carona in the last two elections, has shifted allegiances to one of the sheriff's opponents because of misgivings about the incumbent.

"I've just seen a disconnect with a lot of people who were involved in the first campaigns," said Rodriguez, who has endorsed Sheriff's Lt. William Hunt.

"All the scandals have hurt. "

Carona began his first term by persuading the Board of Supervisors to change a county rule requiring that assistant sheriffs serve first as captains in the department. That allowed him to appoint George Jaramillo and Don Haidl as his top assistants.

Jaramillo, a lawyer, had been a Garden Grove police lieutenant. Carona fired him in March 2004 and Jaramillo was later indicted. The former aide has pleaded not guilty to charges that he took bribes from a Newport Beach company, CHG Safety Technologies.

The firm was seeking to market a laser device to police agencies. Prosecutors allege that Jaramillo took $25,000 from the company as payment for using his position to promote the device.

In a separate case, CHG owner Charles H. Gabbard admitted to funneling thousands of dollars to Carona's 1998 campaign through an illegal stock swap, a matter the district attorney's office referred to the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

The panel would not comment on the status of its investigation.

The district attorney's office granted Gabbard immunity in the alleged bribery scheme to secure his testimony against Jaramillo.

Carona's other top assistant was Haidl, a wealthy businessman and Carona fund-raiser who came to the job with little law enforcement experience. He had been a volunteer reserve deputy in San Bernardino County. Three state agencies investigated him years earlier for allegedly skimming proceeds from government auto sales through his City of Industry auction firm.

Though denying the allegations, he paid $104,000 to settle a civil complaint.

He resigned as assistant sheriff in September 2004 because of the fallout over his son's arrest in a notorious sexual assault case. Gregory Haidl and two codefendants were convicted of attacking a highly intoxicated 16-year-old girl during a party at his father's Newport Beach home.

Don Haidl oversaw the expansion of Carona's reserve deputy program, creating a volunteer corps that critics say was designed as a fundraising tool for the sheriff's political campaigns.

Eighty-six of the reserves -- nearly all of them Carona's political allies -- got weapons permits, badges and, in some cases, guns in 1999, without the full training or background checks mandated by the state Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training.

Carona challenged the commission's decision to remove them from the state's database of peace officers. The dispute was finally settled last summer and, at last count, only eight of the 86 were interested in completing the training.

The sheriff had pressed ahead with the reserve appointments, and insisted there would be no risk to public safety, despite warnings by county lawyers of legal liabilities. But some of those reserves and others with ties to the sheriff were later accused of abusing their positions.

In August, a reserve who was Carona's martial arts instructor was arrested for allegedly waving his gun and badge at a group of golfers he thought was playing too slowly. Raymond K. Yi has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting a felony trial.

Another reserve, Freddie Glusman, who owns the upscale Ritz restaurant in Newport Beach, allegedly pulled his badge and threatened a coin-laundry proprietor in an argument over a parking space.

Glusman, who held a 50th birthday party fundraiser for Carona last spring, resigned after the Sheriff's Department began an investigation of the incident.

Federal investigators have subpoenaed documents from the reserve division, according to two law enforcement sources who asked not to be named because they are not allowed to talk about the probe.

Another source who requested anonymity said federal agents also have obtained records from Carona's campaign organization. This followed disclosures that the government subpoenaed documents from his charitable foundation.

The precise focus and status of the investigations could not be determined, and it was unclear whether they are related to Jaramillo's prosecution or have ventured into new areas.

One of Carona's confidantes, Sheriff's Capt. Christine Murray, was charged last year on 16 misdemeanor counts of soliciting campaign donations for the sheriff from department colleagues. State law prohibits government employees from asking co-workers for political contributions. Murray denies the charges.

In court papers, the state attorney general's office claimed that Schroeder tried to help Murray cover up her actions. Schroeder has denied the accusation. He has not been charged but has been called as a witness.

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Some people who have worked with Carona or knew him before he became sheriff say many of his woes betrayed a lack of savvy in running a big-league department, as well as hubris.

They say the appointments of Jaramillo and Haidl and putting friends and political insiders on the reserve force smacked of arrogance and cronyism.

Just as revealing, they say, were Carona's since-abandoned proposal to emblazon his name on all sheriff's patrol cars, and his practice of traveling with an entourage of bodyguards. The four-deputy contingent referred to Carona by the code name "Braveheart."

Still, with the Jaramillo episode yet to come and problems with the reserve program playing out under the public radar, these were good years for the sheriff, culminating with his star turn in the Runnion case.

After the Stanton girl's murder, Carona took to the airwaves and told the killer not to eat, not to sleep, because sheriff's detectives were on his trail.

The arrest of Alejandro Avila, who has since been convicted and sentenced to death, was swift.

In the heady aftermath, Carona spoke openly about seeking this year's Republican nomination for lieutenant governor amid speculation that the Bush administration might first tap him for a high-level post.

The celebrity brought by the Runnion case also invited a closer look into Carona's background. In 2003, The Times first reported the inconsistencies between Carona's story of his mother's death from alcoholism and the official record.

He said his mother drank a fifth of liquor and a six-pack of beer daily, and that he found her dead in her bed one morning when he was 11.

An autopsy report, however, stated that his mother died of cancer that began as a sinus tumor. It said she had no alcohol in her blood, and that Carona's father had discovered her body.

The sheriff's first wife and his stepmother say Carona never told them about his mother's alcoholism or finding her dead.

In a 2003 interview with The Times, Carona was largely taciturn about the conflicts in the accounts. "It was just ugly," he said of his mother's demise.

He had detailed his childhood ordeal in a 2000 book on drug and alcohol treatment, "Save My Son," which he co-wrote with Orange County author Maralys Wills, who continues to stand by the sheriff.

She said the pain of his upbringing might have altered Carona's memory of the circumstances of his mother's death.

"He was putting that behind him," said Wills, who described Carona as a "very decent individual."

Last summer, Erica Hill, who is Jaramillo's sister-in-law, told the grand jury she'd had sex with Carona. The panel called her as part of its investigation into the bribery charges against Jaramillo. Hill told The Times that Carona pressured her to have sex as a condition to the Sheriff's Department hiring her husband as a deputy.

She said their first tryst was during Carona's 1999 inaugural party, in a hotel room. Her husband was not hired.

Carona also appeared before the grand jury, but was not asked about Hill's allegations. He has since publicly denied Hill's claims.

In September, a Mission Viejo man filed a $15-million claim against the county, alleging that his former wife was sexually harassed by Carona.

Dean Holloway, who is now divorced and is on probation for grand theft, asserts that Carona called Susan Holloway in 2002 at the couple's Aliso Viejo home and asked her to spend the weekend with him in San Francisco. The Holloways were married at the time.

Schroeder said Susan Holloway, who is Jaramillo's cousin, later disavowed her statement. But Susan Holloway said she did so under duress, and stands by her ex-husband's account. Carona has denied the accusation.

Schroeder dismissed any notion that the totality of problems swirling around Carona might indicate that where there is so much smoke, fire must lurk.

Like other Carona supporters, he said the only crises to occur on the sheriff's watch were caused by a few people who went astray on their own.

Carona has handled those disappointments with aplomb, beginning with Jaramillo's firing, Schroeder said.

"When you have an organization with 4,200 people, you're going to have people who do some things that are inappropriate," he added. "You take care of it, and he has."

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Times staff writer Jean O. Pasco contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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