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Government’s case against a flawed Michael Carona had too many flaws

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In the end, it didn’t matter that Mike Carona didn’t take the witness stand in his own defense.

It didn’t matter that his attorneys didn’t line up character witnesses for him.

It didn’t matter that his top two handpicked assistants were widely disparaged.

It didn’t even matter that his reputation as an upstanding citizen was shredded by disclosures of having a mistress and using the foulest of language in conversation.

What mattered was that the federal jury shot holes in the government’s claim that the former Orange County sheriff ran a corrupt administration. It largely rejected the testimony of the government’s star witness who testified for 10 days and instead gave the benefit of the doubt to Carona, the man who didn’t say a word.

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The jury convicted Carona of witness tampering -- not an incidental crime -- but acquitted him on the five other counts that covered his nine years in office that began in 1999.

As a result, Carona may be America’s happiest felon.

How did the government miss the mark so badly?

A couple of the jurors who talked to reporters afterward gave the standard answers: The evidence just wasn’t sufficient. They were hamstrung by the statute of limitations regarding some of the allegations. They didn’t fully trust key witness Don Haidl’s testimony. They wondered why George Jaramillo, a former assistant sheriff whose character was attacked throughout the trial, wasn’t called to testify. He already has pleaded guilty to charges relating to the alleged Carona conspiracy.

That was the jury talking about the finer points of law.

I suspect they had an equally important gut-level response. They saw too many allegations by the government that didn’t pan out. They saw a relationship between Carona and Haidl that, essentially, was depicted as a friend bribing a friend. They saw a government list of benefits Haidl supposedly received from Carona and apparently weren’t overwhelmed by it.

And, just as important, they didn’t see a Carona administration in which he enriched himself. One juror said he didn’t think Carona was “money hungry,” thereby undercutting the government’s central theme that the alleged conspiracy was hatched partly to enrich him.

Another juror, asked about the crucial allegation that Haidl gave Carona cash in regular monthly meetings over four years, said he thought the payments might have occurred but not for that long a period. That juror said of Carona that “women were his downfall,” a far cry from the government’s narrative of the case.

In a trial that involved points of law but also more worldly themes of betrayal and trust, greed and guile, the jury saw Carona as flawed but not corrupt. They saw him as a man who made some bad judgments but didn’t betray the citizens of Orange County.

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It was the defense team’s dream scenario.

Jurors found just enough in the jumble of secretly recorded taped conversations between Haidl and Carona to convict him of the tampering count, but not enough to convince them of a broader conspiracy or that he violated the public trust in filling out a misleading financial disclosure form.

Carona says he’ll appeal the tampering conviction, which carries a potential prison sentence, but made it clear that he was enjoying a very good Friday indeed. By the time the court clerk had read the second “not guilty” finding in her recitation of the charges, Carona was crying quietly and his wife, Deborah, was saying “Oh, my God” in the audience and audibly reacting with tearful happiness.

“The beauty for me,” Carona said inside the federal courthouse before holding a short news conference outside in front of the cameras, “is that people have been saying that Mike Carona sold his office and didn’t serve the citizens of Orange County. Finally, 12 jurors said that was not the case.”

Carona’s lawyers prepared him for the worst. They made no effort to suggest they had been confident of victory, always fearful of how the jury might interpret the tapes.

Afterward, while clearly in celebratory mode, they passed up a chance to blast the government.

They took their shots but not at full throttle. Attorney Jeff Rawitz said the case should never have been brought to federal court but acknowledged that Carona had made mistakes that led to his trouble. He reiterated the defense argument that the government’s ploy to secretly record Carona was improper, because he had a lawyer at the time.

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As close as Carona came to anger was to call it “reprehensible” that the government included his wife and his former mistress, Debra Hoffman, in the charges.

Other than that, he struck me as humble and contrite and reverted to his image as a man of faith. He referred to the jury verdict as a “miracle” from God. He acknowledged the anger that many people feel toward him and conceded there are many things he needs to apologize for in his life. “The good news is God forgives people and apparently I’m one of those he forgave and created a miracle around it.”

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dana.parsons@latimes.com

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