Ex-aide to O.C. sheriff admits making illegal donations

A Newport Beach millionaire testified Wednesday that he illegally pumped tens of thousands of dollars into former Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona’s 1998 campaign -- all with Carona’s blessing.

Donald Haidl, a key government witness in Carona’s corruption trial, said he was told that if he raised $30,000 in political donations for Carona, he would own the Sheriff’s Department and “there would be 1,800 guns and 5,000 employees at my disposal.”

The problem was, Orange County law limited campaign donations to $1,000 per person.

To get around that limit, Carona directed him to find 30 trusted people to write $1,000 checks to the campaign and then reimburse them himself in cash, “so it was untraceable,” Haidl testified.

In the months that followed, Haidl said, he collected checks from relatives and employees of his companies and then secretly reimbursed them in cash as Carona and his campaign manager, George Jaramillo, had instructed.

He said Carona told him to find “people who could keep their mouths shut and wouldn’t say anything.”

Orange County’s former sheriff, along with a onetime mistress, Debra V. Hoffman, are on trial on charges that they and others sold Carona’s influence for tens of thousands of dollars in cash and gifts from Haidl and other wealthy businessmen.

Corona’s wife, Deborah, is also charged in the conspiracy and awaits a separate trial.

Haidl, who made his fortune auctioning cars from government agencies, has pleaded guilty to tax charges and has been cooperating with the government for nearly two years.

During the government’s investigation, Haidl said, he agreed to secretly wear a wire in three meetings with Carona in the summer of 2007.

His testimony and the tapes from those meetings with the sheriff are central to the government’s case.

The recordings, which allegedly capture Carona trying to cover up more than $40,000 in cash payments and other questionable activity involving Haidl, are not expected to be played in court until next week.

On Wednesday, Haidl told jurors that he met Carona and Jaramillo, an attorney who also went on to become an assistant Orange County sheriff, during a poolside lunch at Haidl’s Newport Beach home in 1998.

“I was very, very impressed. He was very, very charming, able to adapt to questions, circumstances, people’s personalities, an unbelievable speaker,” Haidl recalled. “He was just a charmer.”

Jaramillo, by contrast, acted like a salesman who was most interested in raising money for Carona, he said.

“They were a magical team, the two of these guys were,” Haidl said. “I referred to them as the preacher and the pickpocket.”

He recalled that the conversation quickly turned to money.

In addition to the secretly reimbursed contributions, Haidl said, Carona was aware that Haidl had spent thousands of dollars to buy banners to hang from freeway overpasses and tow from a private airplane above Orange County’s coastline -- and the home and office of his opponent, Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters.

Such spending on behalf of a candidate must be reported on disclosure statements.

Carona defeated Walters in the hotly contested 1998 race, then lobbied county supervisors to change the rules so he could appoint Jaramillo and Haidl as his top assistant sheriffs.

Carona served nine years as sheriff before he was indicted. He retired in January to focus on his corruption case.

Haidl, who was put in charge of the volunteer reserve deputy division, testified that he and Carona discussed expanding the reserve force to 1,000 members, in part, to recruit wealthy residents who would each be asked to donate $1,000 to Carona’s campaign.

By their math, Haidl said, that would mean $1 million in political donations to support Carona’s aspirations for higher office.

At the same time, and partly to help give such a program legitimacy, they also talked about soliciting a variety of professionals so that they could lend their time and skills to the department at no cost, Haidl said.

Haidl testified that he had previously been a member of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department’s Special Services Bureau, a group of volunteer deputies that amounted to little more than what he said was a “badge-for-money program.”

He said that he and Carona discussed the San Bernardino County program and agreed that they did not want to be as “transparent.”

“I wanted to do some good here, and at the same time raise a whole bunch of money,” Haidl said.

In other testimony, Haidl said he routinely heard Carona use the terms “plausible deniability” and “protect the candidate.”

What Carona meant, according to Haidl, was that “if he didn’t’ appear to know [about illegal activity], then nobody could do anything” about it.

To that end, Haidl said, Jaramillo was the “buffer,” the “guy who was going to take the heat” and shield Carona from anything that could be illegal.

“He was going to be the bad guy and keep Mike Carona looking like the good guy,” Haidl testified.

Pfeifer and Hanley are Times staff writers.