Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona’s announcement Monday that he was quitting his post to fight public corruption charges left the state’s second-largest sheriff’s department in upheaval.
As he departed, Carona took steps to leave his political imprint on the department, firing one of his assistant sheriffs, Dan Martini, without explanation, and appointing as interim sheriff one of his biggest loyalists.
His choice of Assistant Sheriff Jack Anderson to run the department immediately raised concerns in some quarters, because in addition to being a strong Carona ally, Anderson is an official of the Orange County Republican Party.
Supervisor John Moorlach questioned whether the appointment was even valid. The Board of Supervisors intends to appoint a successor to fill out the remaining three years of Carona’s term, and already the names of candidates -- some from the Carona faithful, others sharp critics of the sheriff -- are being discussed. The board meets today.
Carona said he resigned so he could concentrate on defending himself against corruption charges and continue receiving free legal advice from one of the nation’s top law firms.
The decision, which marked a significant reversal of Carona’s vow to stay in office while he worked to clear his name, brought an end to a once-promising political career.
Carona, who called the resignation “one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made,” stepped down a little more than two months after federal prosecutors accused him of selling the power of his office for tens of thousands of dollars in cash and gifts.
“The downside is once I go to trial and get found not guilty, I can’t get this job back,” Carona said. “I need to have a top-notch legal defense team, and these are some of the best of the best in America. It’s an incredible opportunity for me.”
Carona’s longtime political advisor and attorney, Michael Schroeder, said Carona’s resignation was in no way an indication that the three-term sheriff intended to plead guilty and that “no new evidence has popped up” to prompt him to step down. The sheriff, who was charged along with his wife, Deborah, and alleged longtime mistress, Debra Hoffman, is scheduled to stand trial in June. There are no plea negotiations underway, Schroeder said.
“He’s not going to accept a result other than the feds’ dismissing the charges,” Schroeder said.
Carona’s career had seen a second-generation American, the son of a car mechanic, rise to national prominence as the leader of California’s second-largest sheriff’s department. As photographs outside his hallway attest, Carona has worked with three governors and two presidents and has appeared as a guest on CNN’s “Larry King Live.” Several years ago, he considered running for statewide office, then perhaps a seat in Washington.
“It’s the American dream, and I’ve had the chance to live it,” a somber Carona said during a brief discussion with The Times. “It’s very difficult. For 32 years, this has been what I’ve done. I’ve been a peace officer in Orange County. . . . This is not the way I planned on walking out of here, but this is the way I find myself walking out.”
Before federal prosecutors charged Carona with seven felonies in October, there had been allegations of cronyism and sexual harassment.
At the same time, Carona had proved himself a charismatic and effective leader, promoting the Amber Alert system that, in California, started in Orange County; installing drug abuse treatment at county jails; and expanding one of the largest crime labs and DNA centers in the nation.
The unraveling of Carona’s career follows federal prosecutions of two of his top assistants, former Undersheriff George Jaramillo and Assistant Sheriff Donald Haidl. Both men, once Carona’s biggest allies, are expected to testify against Carona.
Although professing his innocence and confidence that he would clear his name at trial, Carona said he had no choice but to resign in order to obtain the best legal defense available.
At issue were the donated legal services of the Jones Day law firm in Los Angeles. The state attorney general’s office opened an investigation into Carona’s arrangement with Jones Day at the request of Shirley L. Grindle, an Orange County political watchdog who thought the arrangement violated state law.
Senior Assistant Atty. Gen. Gary W. Schons said his office had informed Jones Day attorney Brian A. Sun that it had determined that the free legal service constituted a gift and that Carona could resign or arrange to pay for the legal services at a reasonable rate.
With the estimated cost of the defense at $2 million, Carona chose to resign and accept the help rather than stay in office and hire cheaper attorneys or accept a public defender.
“He’s a man of modest means,” Schroeder said of Carona. He said the legal bills Carona had amassed thus far already exceed his net worth. Carona has several attorneys on his team, not all of whom are working pro bono.
County supervisors, who have already been meeting behind closed doors with potential successors, will appoint a sheriff to serve the three years left in Carona’s term. There will be no special election.
While praising Anderson’s career with the department, Moorlach said the board was not certain he could legally be named interim sheriff. The shuffling of the top ranks on the last day of Carona’s service, he said, made it unclear who the proper successor was according to state law. He also said the county was examining Carona’s midnight firing of Assistant Sheriff Martini.
Martini said he and Carona had had their differences but that they were not a factor in Carona’s decision. When he was told his services were no longer required, he chose to resign, he said. Martini, 59, had been with the department 32 years. He said that in the end there was no bad blood between him and Carona. Carona also demoted Undersheriff Jo Ann Galisky to assistant sheriff. Carona said Galisky declined his invitation to serve as interim sheriff. Galisky declined to comment.
Highlighting the chaotic nature of the hand-over, Moorlach said Carona didn’t communicate with the board about whom he wished to have succeed him.
Moorlach, who was the first to call for Carona’s resignation when he was indicted, said: “For the last few months, the sheriff has not really been communicating with us at all.”
He said the county wanted a “deliberative, thorough” search for a successor that could take up to six months. “We need someone who can lead the department and restore morale,” Moorlach said.
Already, at least four candidates have lobbied the supervisors for the job -- former Lt. Bill Hunt, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Cmdr. Ralph Martin, Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters and a top official of the Anaheim Police Department. Hunt, Martin and Walters have all previously mounted unsuccessful campaigns for sheriff against Carona.
Mark Nichols, general manager of the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs, the union that represents nearly 2,000 sworn personnel, said the prosecution had been a distraction for the department. Likewise, Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said Carona’s retirement “is good news for both him and the county.”
One week after he was indicted, Carona announced that he was taking a paid, two-month leave to work on his defense. He returned to work Jan. 7 and spent one week on the job before deciding to resign.
Carona will receive a pension roughly equal to his final salary of $199,680 per year.
Prosecutors allege that Carona tried to enrich himself, his wife and his mistress by trading favors for cash and gifts. Carona faces conspiracy, mail fraud and witness-tampering charges; his wife is charged with one count of conspiracy; and Hoffman with one count of conspiracy, four counts of mail fraud and three counts of bankruptcy fraud.
Times staff writer H.G. Reza contributed to this report.
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Possible candidates to succeed Carona as O.C. sheriff
A Carona loyalist and his handpicked successor. Anderson, an assistant sheriff, is a member of the county GOP central committee. He is the department’s operations commander, responsible for supervising police services in unincorporated areas and 12 contract cities.
The Santa Ana police chief ran against Carona in 1998 and lost, but has not given up hope of serving as sheriff. The Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs endorsed Walters in 1998, when Carona first ran.
A Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department commander who ran against Carona in 2006 and placed third with 17% of the vote. Martin is a member of an Orange County group that is studying whether to establish an independent panel to oversee the department.
As a sheriff’s lieutenant, Hunt ran against Carona in 2006, placing second, and was put on leave by Carona after the election. Carona announced his intention to demote him, but Hunt stepped down instead. He was endorsed by the Assn. of Orange County Deputy Sheriffs.
Storm retired as assistant sheriff in 2005 after a 32-year career. In 1998, then-Sheriff Brad Gates encouraged him to run against Carona. Storm announced his candidacy but then dropped out. He was highly regarded as the department’s budget expert.
Researched by Times staff writers H.G. Reza and Christine Hanley.
Los Angeles Times