The lawman once lauded as “America’s sheriff” for bringing criminals to justice is now behind bars.
Former Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona, who arrived Tuesday at Englewood Federal Correctional Institution in Littleton, Colo., to begin a 51/2 -year prison sentence for witness tampering, will join other notable criminals, including former Enron Chief Executive Jeffrey K. Skilling, who is serving a 24-year sentence at the facility for financial misdeeds.
FOR THE RECORD:
Michael Carona: In the Jan. 26 LATExtra section, an article about the arrival of former Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona at federal prison in Colorado said he had been sentenced to 55 months for witness tampering. His sentence is 66 months, or 5 1/2 years, as was indicated elsewhere in the article. —
Carona’s new address was named by Forbes magazine as one of the “12 best places to go to prison.” Among the perks: pool tables, pingpong and foosball.
The 55-year-old former sheriff will put in 7-1/2 hours a day doing landscaping, plumbing, painting or food service work, prison spokesman John Sell said.
Like other inmates at the low-security prison outside Denver, he can take college courses and will have access to an outdoor recreation area with a softball field, running track and basketball court in addition to an indoor gym with treadmills, weights and exercise bicycles.
Carona’s incarceration effectively ends a years-long saga thathad clouded his reputation. The head of California’s second-largest sheriff’s department was the focus of a federal corruption investigation, a grand jury indictment and a criminal trial.
The stain Carona left behind was so wide that the Orange County Board of Supervisors purposely looked outside the department and the county to replace him.
Carona was viewed as a rising political star early in his career and drew national attention when he appeared on “Larry King Live” after the kidnapping and murder of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion and vowed to track down the killer. The man convicted in the girl’s death was arrested just days later.
But his standing eroded when investigators began to examine reports of secret cash payments, illicit sexual affairs and political favors, such as providing badges and concealed weapon licenses to campaign contributors
Carona was indicted in 2007. He initially refused to step down, saying that he could fight the criminal charges and run the department at the same time. He changed his mind several days later and retired.
During a two-month trial, prosecutors alleged that Carona aggressively used his office to enrich himself and extract favors from donors. The central piece of evidence in the case was a secretly recorded conversation in which Carona spoke to an assistant about “untraceable” cash.
He was acquitted in 2009 on five of six charges, including conspiracy and mail fraud. But the jury found him guilty of urging then-Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl to lie to a grand jury that was investigating his administration.
When U.S. District Judge Andrew J. Guilford sentenced him to 55 months in prison, he sternly lectured Carona on honesty, telling him “there will not be any coddling here.”
Carona appealed his conviction and had been free on bail pending the outcome of his appeal.
Earlier this month, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the conviction, though Carona’s lawyers have petitioned the court to reconsider its decision or rehear the appeal before a full 11-judge panel.
Carona’s top two assistants — Haidl and Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo — were also convicted of crimes, and much of the former sheriff’s command staff has left or been forced out.
George Wright, chairman of the Department of Criminal Justice at Santa Ana College, recalled viewing the 43-year-old Carona as “a breath of fresh air” when he first took office in 1999. But as details of his alleged corruption began to emerge, his reputation quickly soured, Wright said.
The widespread feeling in the law enforcement community now, Wright said, is relief that Carona is finally being punished for his wrongdoing.
“It reinforces the fact that even the big guys can end up in jail for what they’ve done,” he said.
Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters, who was defeated by Carona in 1998 and was the runner-up to replace him after Carona resigned, said Carona’s imprisonment could help Orange County move beyond a period that reflected poorly on law enforcement leaders.
“His fall from grace was really a national story, so the fact that he’s actually starting to serve the time shows that there’s justice for all,” Walters said. “I just hope this is the final chapter and it’s a new era.”
Carona will be eligible for release when he has served at least 85% of his time — probably in 2015.