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Is Carona stained by O.C. paintball lease?

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Times Staff Writers

When a paintball firm began exploring the idea of opening a range in Orange County, they turned to an unlikely source: Sheriff Michael S. Carona.

After Carona met with the business partners, one of Carona’s associates told them the sheriff would do his best to help out with the deal but that it would cost them thousands of dollars, according to a federal criminal indictment made public last week. So, the indictment says, the businessmen ponied up $25,000 for Carona’s influence in landing a site.

Carona has no authority in county land-use decisions, but when the paintball partners sought to lease land at the Orange County Fairgrounds in Costa Mesa, the sheriff’s wife was in a position to help. Deborah Carona was president of the fair board, which approves land-use deals at the sprawling site.

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Records show the lease agreement was approved by the fair board unanimously, without discussion, this year.

Giant Paintball Park opened last month, just days before federal prosecutors unsealed a sweeping corruption indictment accusing Carona of misusing his office to enrich himself and others, including his wife and a woman identified as his longtime mistress.

All three have pleaded not guilty and are free on bail. Carona, under withering pressure, agreed to take a leave of absence this week and turned over the day-to-day operation of the state’s second-largest sheriff’s department to the undersheriff.

Deborah Carona’s attorney, Dave Wiechert, said there was nothing untoward about his client’s vote. She had “no involvement with meeting these guys, or going over the plan, or anything,” he said.

“There’s absolutely nothing that was done wrong here,” Wiechert said. “The board unanimously approved this, and it was at the recommendation of the people on the staff who thought it was a great idea.”

Dale Dykema, president of the board, said late Thursday that he did not believe Deborah Carona was aware of the staff’s interactions with the paintball partners and therefore did not have a conflict. “In this particular instance, I don’t believe Debbie Carona had any idea this contract was being signed, based on my conversations with staff today,” Dykema said.

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The park is operated by Giovanni D’Egidio and Dennis Bukowski. They own several paintball facilities under an umbrella company called Hollywood Sports Park in Bellflower, and are involved in a series of transactions involving the Caronas that date to the sheriff’s earliest days in office.

D’Egidio and Bukowski did not return repeated calls.

Campaign records reviewed by The Times show that the partners donated $1,620 to Carona’s campaign before the alleged pay-to-play meeting took place. Bukowski contributed $250 in 1998 and $500 in 1999 through one of his other companies. D’Egidio gave $420 as an individual and $450 through one of his companies in 1999.

In April 2000, federal prosecutors say, Carona, his then-assistant sheriff George Jaramillo and their attorney friend Joseph G. Cavallo met with the two businessmen to discuss Carona’s ability to use his influence to facilitate the acquisition of land for a paintball park in Orange County.

The businessmen, according to the indictment, paid Cavallo $25,000 after he told them Carona would use his influence in exchange for “tens of thousands of dollars of cash.” Carona is accused of using his influence to get his wife appointed to the fair board a year later. Appointments to state fair boards are made by the governor.

Her appointment to the board was made in May 2001 by then-Gov. Gray Davis. It came two months after Carona -- a rising star in the Republican party at the time -- threw a $10,000-a-plate fundraiser for Davis, which drew the wrath of fellow Republicans.

The sheriff went ahead with the event despite discouragement for staging such splashy support for a Democrat.

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D’Egidio and Bukowski are partners in Hollywood Sports Park and separately own several other companies. Construction on their 30-acre, $9-million action park in Bellflower began in 2000 and opened two years later, according to their website. The halls there are lined with pictures of the two of them posing with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the owners boast the park is a hot spot for the governor and celebrities such as Will Smith, Nicolas Cage and the Rock.

They arrived at the Orange County Fairgrounds in January, meeting at the two-story, farm-style administration building with Mark Entner, who manages the fair’s rental agreements with event producers.

“They were nice guys,” Entner recalled Thursday. “They said they had been looking to expand into Orange County for a long time.”

Within a few days, the two entrepreneurs followed up with a letter requesting a two-year lease. They proposed that no base rent be paid to the fairgrounds.

The proposal went on to suggest the fair would instead receive a 12% share of the admission charge, rentals and air refill sales -- but nothing from the sale of guns, paintballs and other products.

Normally, those seeking rental agreements are required to fill out an application, according to fair board officials. D’Egidio and Bukowski did not, Entner said.

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Entner said he and the staff spent the following months researching the firm, but no report was produced. The firm’s only written reference came from the assistant city manager of Bellflower.

In May, fair management signed a rental agreement that would allow the two to operate in the grandstand arena from October through April 2008. The rental fee had been increased to 15% of admission sales, gun rentals and air refills. The deal was approved at the board’s next meeting.

Entner said there were no other applications filed requesting off-season use of the grandstand, which is used to stage motocross events when the fair is in session. In past years, the area has been used in the off-season for rodeos, horse shows and motocross events.

christine.hanley@latimes

garrett.therolf@latimes.com

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