Group denies use of data to Carona

Times Staff Writer

A law enforcement network that gathers intelligence on organized crime has cut off the Orange County Sheriff’s Department because of the sheriff’s association with various businessmen, including a Las Vegas strip club owner with reputed mob ties now serving time for racketeering.

Sheriff Michael S. Carona minimized the effect of the suspension, saying it would have zero influence on his department’s police work and that he had never heard of the Law Enforcement Intelligence Unit until the chairman contacted him last year about the potential suspension.

Carona also downplayed his relationship with topless-bar owner Rick Rizzolo, whom the Intelligence Unit identified as one of several individuals who associate with the sheriff and “have pled guilty to or are suspected of involvement in criminal activity ... including traditional organized crime activity.”

“I don’t know the guy. I don’t associate with the guy,” Carona said of Rizzolo in an interview Monday. “We’re not buddies.”

The intelligence network, a 51-year-old professional association that collects and shares intelligence on organized crime, terrorism and gambling, notified its membership of the decision in an internal memo issued in June. The group comprises about 250 police agencies in four countries.


The group’s executive board voted April 21 to indefinitely suspend the sheriff’s access to the group’s “criminal intelligence information and related materials, except in cases involving imminent danger to life or property,” according to a memo from general chairman Russell M. Porter, assistant director of criminal investigations for the Iowa Department of Public Safety.

“The decision comes after the executive board’s review of circumstances involving the chief executive of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department,” Porter wrote.

Porter said the action reflected the board’s concerns over “occurrences or acts detrimental to the LEIU or when an agency’s membership is detrimental to LEIU objectives or policy.”

It is up to individual member agencies to determine whether to continue to exchange criminal intelligence information with the Sheriff’s Department, he added.

Porter and other board members did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Correspondence between the group and the O.C. Sheriff’s Department shows that the executive board’s review included the sheriff’s association with Rizzolo. Two law enforcement officials familiar with the decision, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment, also said the board considered his interactions with Joseph Medawar, who was allowed to film scenes for a bogus television series about U.S. homeland security at the sheriff’s highly secure emergency communications center.

Rizzolo was sentenced to a year and a day in prison in January after pleading guilty to tax evasion and racketeering charges related to allegations that he and his employees extorted money from customers with threats and violence.

Last year, the OC Weekly published photos showing Rizzolo with a drink in one hand and his other arm draped around a uniformed Carona at the upscale Ritz restaurant in Newport Beach. Rizzolo contributed the maximum $1,500 to the sheriff’s 2006 campaign. The donation was later returned.

Filmmaker Medawar was sentenced in December to a year and a day in prison after admitting he swindled more than $2 million out of scores of victims who thought they were investing in a reality series about the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The purported actress in the show was appointed as a special reserve deputy in Orange County before she too was indicted in the get-rich scheme and pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents.

Carona said the only person identified by name by the Intelligence Unit was Rizzolo. In September, Carona wrote a letter to the group’s chairman acknowledging that he had met Rizzolo on several occasions, including at a campaign fundraiser, and had had his picture taken with him. But he told the group he has taken “tens of thousands of pictures” with people during his term as sheriff. He said he couldn’t do a background check on all of them and that it would be illegal for him to do so.

He said he had not maintained a relationship with Rizzolo and had not known of Rizzolo’s business relationships or activities. He said that once he learned of them, he returned Rizzolo’s money. The sheriff noted that others, including President Bush and former state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, had taken contributions from Rizzolo. Similarly, Medawar had conned a variety of politicians and other power brokers into carrying out his scam, Carona said. The sheriff said he would be happy to meet with the board to address its concerns but had not been invited to do so.

In the meantime, Carona and his top assistants said the department would still have access to all the intelligence it needs through other channels. The sheriff said he had secret clearances with the FBI, Department of Justice and other agencies that allow him access to certain types of classified information.

“This has no effect on us,” he said. Assistant Sheriff Steve Bishop said the suspension was not an embarrassment for the sheriff or the department but, rather, should be considered an embarrassment for the Law Enforcement Intelligence Unit.

The unit was formed in 1956 to set standards for promoting the trust, training and communication required to carry out the lawful and ethical sharing, use and analysis of criminal intelligence among law enforcement agencies.

Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Capt. Steve Johnson, who helps supervise his department’s major crime bureau, said the Intelligence Unit’s resources were highly valuable. He said he did not know the reasons behind the Orange County suspension. But in general, he said, when the association suspends an agency, it is “sending out a warning” that it cannot vouch for the veracity of that agency’s files.