A federal appeals court Thursday upheld the witness-tampering conviction of former Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona, but it remained unclear when he might have to begin serving his 5 1/2-year prison sentence.
Carona has been free pending the ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Lawyers for the former sheriff acquitted of five other corruption counts had argued that jurors shouldn’t have heard a secretly taped conversation in which Carona urged a colleague to lie to a grand jury on his behalf.
During a two-month trial in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, prosecutors alleged that Carona accepted secret cash payments, had numerous illicit sexual affairs, and provided badges and concealed weapons licenses to campaign contributors.
Both Carona’s wife, Deborah Carona, and ex-mistress, Debra Hoffman, had faced related charges for benefiting from his schemes, but the charges were dropped after Carona’s acquittal on accusations of bribe-taking, mail fraud and conspiracy. He was found guilty in January 2009 on the single count of witness tampering relating to the clandestinely recorded conversation with then-Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl.
A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit agreed in July 2009 to let Carona, 55, postpone the start of his sentence, deeming him neither a flight risk nor a threat to public safety. The court also said at the time that Carona raised significant questions of law or fact that were likely to result in reversal of his conviction, a new trial or a lesser penalty.
Specifically, Carona’s lawyers had argued that the prosecution’s contact with Haidl, who was cooperating with the government, violated a state law forbidding lawyers from contacting prospective witnesses represented by counsel.
On Thursday, however, another panel of the appeals court concluded that the trial court judge did not err in letting jurors consider the evidence contained in the recorded conversations between Carona and Haidl.
“The district court did not abuse its discretion by instructing the jury that the government is not precluded from engaging in stealth and deception, such as the use of informants, in order to apprehend persons who have engaged in criminal activities,” the 9th Circuit panel concluded.
Carona, who presided over California’s second-largest sheriff’s department, was forced out of office in 2008 but collected about $215,000 in retirement benefits in 2009, Orange County public records show.
John D. Cline, an attorney for Carona, said the defense team would have no immediate comment on Thursday’s ruling.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office, Thom Mrozek, said Carona could request a rehearing by a full 11-judge panel of the appeals court. That process typically takes a couple of months and could extend the appeal by a year or more if the court agrees to reconsider its ruling.
If the 9th Circuit declines a rehearing, the case would go back to U.S. District Judge Andrew J. Guilford in Santa Ana to decide when Carona would have to begin serving his sentence.