Michael S. Carona, who built a national reputation as a compassionate crime-fighter during nine years as the leader of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, sat in a defendant’s chair Wednesday as a federal prosecutor portrayed him as a money-hungry criminal who sold his office for profit.
“This is the case of the two Mike Caronas,” Assistant U.S. Atty. Brett Sagel told jurors as the long-awaited corruption trial opened at the federal courthouse in Santa Ana. “There’s the Sheriff Carona who went from underdog in 1998 to being sheriff of Orange County. . . . And this Mike Carona, who declared: ‘We’re going to be so rich. We’re going to make so much money.’ ”
But defense lawyer Brian A. Sun said Carona was the victim of vengeful former associates who have wrongly accused him of accepting illicit cash payments and gifts to win leniency in their own corruption cases. The government’s case, he said, relies heavily on the testimony of convicted felons and perjurers who victimized the sheriff in their quests for money and power.
“The evidence in this case will show the only people who made money, who tried to scam money, are the government’s witnesses,” Sun said. “Mike Carona made no money.”
The Carona who prosecutors described in court was a stark contrast from his carefully built image as sheriff. Charismatic and confident, Carona was once described as “America’s sheriff” by CNN’s Larry King, courted by White House power brokers, groomed as a candidate for higher office and all but made a folk hero for leading the manhunt that led to the capture of a little girl’s killer.
On Wednesday, just a few blocks from the headquarters where he ran the nation’s fifth-largest sheriff’s department, Carona sat before jurors as a prosecutor branded him as a man corrupted by greed and power and ultimately consumed with such paranoia that he feared that his telephone lines were tapped and that cameras were hidden in his office walls.
Carona sat at a defense table in front of former longtime mistress Debra Hoffman as prosecutors set out to prove that they and others misused Carona’s office and compromised the public’s trust in a furious race for cash and gifts worth about $700,000. Carona’s wife, Deborah, watched from the gallery. She also is charged in the case but awaits separate trial.
Carona listened intently as the two sides presented their versions to the jury in a courtroom packed with reporters, friends and family of the lawyers and other members of the U.S. attorney’s office. An overflow crowd watched the proceedings from a courtroom four floors below.
Carona, who has vehemently denied any guilt, faces prison time if convicted on all felony charges of conspiracy, mail fraud and witness tampering.
At the center of the government’s case is multimillionaire businessman Donald Haidl, who helped bankroll Carona’s 1998 campaign and was appointed Carona’s assistant sheriff even though he lacked the training and experience for the job.
The alleged scheme was launched in 1997 when Carona’s campaign manager, George Jaramillo, arranged for Haidl and Carona to meet. Haidl saw the pair as a perfect political match: Carona the preacher man and Jaramillo the pickpocket, Sagel said. At the meeting, Carona promised Haidl a job as an assistant sheriff, full access to the sheriff’s resources and a “Get out of jail free card,” Sagel said.
“Don Haidl was looking to buy power,” Sagel said. “Mike Carona and George Jaramillo were selling it.”
The aspiring sheriff and Jaramillo told Haidl that if he put up enough money to win the election “you, Don Haidl, will own the Sheriff’s Department,” Sagel said.
With Carona’s knowledge, Sagel said, Haidl illegally reimbursed donors to Carona’s 1998 campaign, a scheme that allowed him to exceed the county’s $1,000 limit on campaign contributions. After Carona won the election, the prosecutor said, Haidl paid for the sheriff’s vacation to Lake Tahoe, slipping him thousands of dollars in casino chips, allowed him unlimited use of his yacht and private jet, and paid him $1,000 a month in cash -- money the sheriff used primarily to entertain his mistress.
The prosecutor also gave jurors a glimpse at what is widely believed to be the most damaging part of his case: secretly recorded conversations between Haidl and Carona in which the two men discussed the “untraceable” cash bribes.
Prosecutors allege that Haidl paid Carona at least $42,000 in cash, much of it changing hands during secret meetings in Haidl’s kitchen. They also say that in August 2007, Haidl and Carona discussed the bribes as Haidl wore a wire for prosecutors.
“Unless there was a pinhole in your ceiling that evening, it never . . . happened,” Carona can be heard telling Haidl during the conversation played for jurors. “And that part is why I sleep real well at night.”
Sagel told jurors that the word “pinhole” was a reference to a hidden camera and that Carona was aware of pinhole cameras because he had ordered four installed in his Santa Ana office.
Haidl and Jaramillo have pleaded guilty to tax evasion charges and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Their cooperation will be considered when they are sentenced. Sun said the two men have sold prosecutors “a bill of goods,” and will falsely implicate Carona to win leniency.
The witnesses’ credibility is particularly important, Sun said, because there are no financial records to support allegations that Haidl bribed Carona, making this a “he said, she said” case.
“They’re going to have to have porters to carry in all the baggage they’re bringing to the stand,” Sun said.
Carona’s downfall as sheriff began in 2004 when he fired Jaramillo for illegally using sheriff’s resources, including a helicopter, Sun said.
It is unlikely that he would have taken such a step, Sun said, if he and Jaramillo were co-conspirators in a bribery scheme.
“George goes crazy. He decides he’s going to go after Mike Carona. His career is down the drain because he’s been fired. George Jaramillo has an ax to grind,” Sun said.
Another key witness in the case is Joseph Cavallo, a lawyer and longtime friend of Carona.
Sagel told jurors that Carona schemed to use his influence to steer business to Cavallo, who in turn kicked back part of his legal fees to the sheriff. The first witness was Haidl’s personal pilot, a former officer in the U.S. Air Force, who testified that he collected several $1,000 checks for Carona’s first campaign from friends and colleagues he could trust, at the request of Haidl, who promised that the donations would be reimbursed.
Mark Dilullo also testified that Carona took Hoffman to Las Vegas on at least one occasion, and Dilullo was told to make sure that her name was left off the flight logs.
During a different trip to Vegas, Dilullo said he saw Haidl give Carona up to $6,000 worth of casino chips, and a smaller amount to his wife.
Hanley and Pfeifer are Times staff writers.