Sheriff’s wife backed no-bid pact

Times Staff Writers

The wife of indicted Sheriff Michael S. Carona, while serving on the Orange County Fair Board, actively supported a no-bid contract for a longtime swap meet operator who had donated thousands of dollars to her husband’s political campaigns, according to documents and interviews.

Deborah Carona urged fellow directors to grant the contract to TelPhil Enterprises before the company’s bid had been evaluated and even after state officials told the fair board to reconsider a proposal from a firm promising a higher cut of its profits.

Citing tradition at the Costa Mesa-based fairgrounds, the sheriff’s wife said giving the contract to TelPhil was the ethical thing to do.

The state Department of General Services, which oversees county fairs in California, intervened in the swap meet debate after a rival bidder, Delaware North, argued that the fair board had wrongly eliminated it as a contender.

What fair officials didn’t know as Deborah Carona tried to steer the contract to TelPhil was that the father-son owners and one of their wives had donated about $5,000 to the sheriff’s campaign. The son was serving on the Sheriff’s Advisory Council and as one of Carona’s special reserve deputies at the time.


Despite her efforts, Carona’s motion failed and the board reopened the bidding process. But TelPhil ultimately maintained its grip on the swap meet after Delaware North dropped out, complaining that the entire process felt rigged.

In an interview this week, TelPhil founder Robert Teller acknowledged he knew the Caronas from cocktail parties he had attended. But he denied that his support of the sheriff had any effect on his company landing the contract.

“Because it is state property, whether we like it or not, we have to know people who make decisions,” Teller said. “So we go to these little cocktail parties.”

Teller said his association with the sheriff paid limited dividends. “My support for the sheriff didn’t make any difference with Debbie Carona on the fair board,” he said. “I wish it had.”

Deborah Carona could not be reached for comment. Her attorney, Dave Wiechert, said the record showed that “someone who had run the swap meet in a very adept and adroit manner was chosen to continue to do so.”

The state attorney general’s office is currently reviewing a separate contract between the Orange County Fairgrounds and operators of a paintball park who allegedly paid a $25,000 kickback for the sheriff’s help in finding a site. Fair officials asked for the review after The Times reported that Deborah Carona had voted with the majority this year to approve a lease agreement with the partners in Giant Paintball Park, which operates on the fairgrounds.

Sheriff Carona, his wife and his former mistress were indicted last month in a sweeping federal corruption case that accuses him of misusing his office to enrich himself and others. All three are free on bail, and Carona is on paid leave.

The fair didn’t put the contract out for bid after its initial public bid in 1991 until 2003 when Delaware North entered the scene. The company, which operates swap meets and concessions at airports, state parks and sports facilities across the nation, made a bid under a subsidiary, “American Park ‘n’ Swap.”

At the time, Deborah Carona had been on the fair board for two years, and the Tellers -- Robert and his son Jeff, as individuals and through their company and family -- had donated $4,850 to the sheriff’s campaign.

Further, Jeff Teller was a member of the Sheriff’s Advisory Council, a large group of professionals who volunteer advice and services to the Sheriff’s Department. The younger Teller also was one of Carona’s professional services deputies, a group of non-sworn volunteers who get badges and, in some cases, gun permits.

In its bid, American Park ‘n’ Swap proposed paying the fair board 50% of gross proceeds, compared with TelPhil’s 35%. The estimated difference was $12.4 million over five years. American Park ‘n’ Swap also promised to invest heavily in improving the grounds in response to the wishes of vendors.

But in April 2003, Becky Bailey-Findley, the fair’s chief executive, informed American Park ‘n’ Swap that it had been disqualified because of a technicality: It had failed to submit a one-page form showing that the company had authorized the signer of the bid. Her letter acknowledged that when notified and faxed the form in question, American Park ‘n’ Swap filled it out and sent it back. But she said it was too late.

American Park ‘n’ Swap appealed to the state, arguing that the fair had not clearly requested the form and that fair officials had the discretion under California law to waive the requirement.

In a decision issued in June 2003, a lawyer serving as a hearing officer for the Department of General Services sided with American Park ‘n’ Swap and directed the fair board to reopen the bidding process.

By that time, Deborah Carona was on record as one of three board members who favored giving the contract to TelPhil. When the matter came up for discussion again during a February 2004 meeting, she pushed aside the concerns raised by the state and urged the board to abandon the competitive bidding process and begin negotiations with TelPhil.