Acquitted of most criminal counts in a corruption case that left his badge begrimed and his once-meteoric career in tatters, the man formerly dubbed “America’s sheriff” stood outside the federal courthouse in Santa Ana on Friday in an exultant mood.
The jury’s verdict represented “an absolute miracle,” said former Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona, adding that the acquittal on five counts of conspiracy, mail fraud and witness tampering reflected the forgiveness of God. He said he planned to celebrate over drinks.
Yet while he claimed victory, the 53-year-old Carona left the courthouse a felon who could face prison time on the one count of witness tampering on which he was convicted. Although the charge carries a maximum sentence of up to 20 years, under federal sentencing guidelines Carona would probably face no more than 41 months, said Laurie Levenson, a professor at Loyola Law School and a former federal prosecutor.
And in interviews after the trial, jurors said that they believed Carona had illegally accepted cash and gifts but that they were stymied by a statute of limitations that allowed them to consider only acts committed after late October 2002. The government had failed to prove that the conspiracy it alleged among Carona and his associates had involved any overt act after that, the jurors said.
“His hand was in the cookie jar. He was just quick enough to wipe the crumbs off his hands,” said juror Jerome Bell, 42, a truck driver from Anaheim.
The charge on which Carona was convicted stems from an August 2007 meeting at a Newport Beach restaurant between Carona and his former assistant sheriff, Don Haidl, while prosecutors were already years into their investigation. At the meeting, Haidl carried a hidden microphone at the government’s behest. The jury found that Carona tried to persuade Haidl to lie to a grand jury investigating corruption allegations.
The highest-ranking law officer to be prosecuted in Orange County, Carona could have faced 85 years in prison if convicted on all counts.
Before the verdict was read Friday morning, defense attorney Jeff Rawitz prepared Carona for the possibility that he could be taken into custody immediately if convicted.
Instead, there were gasps in the courtroom as the not guilty verdicts were announced. Carona and his wife, Deborah, began sobbing; Carona dropped his head on the defense table and shook. At the reading of the single guilty verdict, he leaned back in his chair and sighed.
Afterward, he acknowledged that “there’s an awful lot of things I need to apologize for,” but added: “I didn’t deprive the citizens of Orange County of my honest services.”
Carona thanked Rawitz and his fellow attorneys from Jones Day, a blue-chip law firm that took the case for free. “They are part of the miracle God gave me,” Carona said.
Rawitz said he would appeal the single conviction, arguing that the government overstepped its bounds in sending Haidl to secretly tape-record a conversation with Carona, who had already enlisted legal representation.
The judge allowed Carona to remain free until his sentencing -- whose date has not been set -- but restricted his travel and forbade him from entering airports, train stations, harbors or other places from which he might flee. Carona also must surrender any weapons he possesses.
Carona was dubbed “America’s sheriff” by CNN’s Larry King after he led a manhunt for an abducted girl’s murderer in July 2002. Talk of higher political office swirled around him.
His fall came five years later. He was indicted in October 2007, resigned last year and went on trial in October 2008. The jury of 11 men and 1 woman heard from 58 witnesses, but Carona himself did not testify.
The government’s case was constrained by the five-year statue of limitations on the conspiracy charges. Though prosecutors argued that Carona committed 64 overt acts to enrich himself starting in 1998, only a handful of those alleged acts -- the ones beginning in October 2002 -- resulted in charges.
Several jurors said that though they believed Carona was guilty of the conspiracy, they adhered to the letter of the law. Assistant U.S. Atty. Kenneth Julian said prosecutors did not have enough evidence to try Carona until he had been captured on tape making incriminating statements to Haidl. By then, the time limit had expired on most allegations. If not for delays caused by Carona’s witness tampering, prosecutors said, the indictment might have been returned earlier.
Crippling the prosecution’s case was the damaged credibility of its star witness, Haidl. A wealthy Newport Beach businessman and high school dropout who made a fortune auctioning cars, Haidl -- who had no previous law enforcement experience -- said he bought his way into a job as assistant sheriff by making at least $30,000 in illegal contributions to Carona’s 1998 campaign.
As part of a plea agreement on separate tax charges, Haidl cooperated with prosecutors for nearly two years and was in the witness box for 10 days.
He secretly recorded three conversations with Carona in the summer of 2007, tapes that were played repeatedly for jurors. In the recordings, Carona sounds nothing like the polished orator who frequently spoke to church and civic groups; the conversations are punctuated with obscenities and racial slurs.
Haidl testified that he gave Carona thousands of dollars in casino chips, tailored suits, a powerboat, and access to his private planes and yacht. He said he handed over monthly bundles of $1,000 in cash, which prosecutors said Carona used to buy jewelry and to finance liaisons with his mistress, Debra Hoffman. Haidl said he also gave her $65,000 at Carona’s request.
Haidl said he paid bribes to both Carona and former Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo, beginning after Carona’s election in 1998 and continuing until 2002.
After Carona persuaded the county Board of Supervisors to scuttle experience as a requirement for top sheriff’s officials, Haidl was given an unmarked county car with emergency lights and sirens, along with Carona’s assurance, he claimed, that he could drive it drunk with impunity. He was also given authority to pass out badges to friends and relatives.
Haidl also testified that Carona made sure his son got preferential treatment in a drug case and exerted his influence -- though unsuccessfully -- in seeking to have the teenager tried as a juvenile in a high-profile sexual-assault case.
On the tape, Carona bragged that he was the “most lethal” politician in Orange County and spoke of “untraceable” cash. Prosecutors say he was reassuring Haidl that his bribe money could not be tracked.
“As long as our stories are straight, I’m OK, as long as I know there’s no trail anywhere,” Haidl said on the tape.
“No trail anywhere. . . . Not even close to being a trail,” Carona replied.
Defense attorneys argued that the monthly bribes never happened, and said the conversation about “untraceable cash” concerned a powerboat Haidl gave Carona as a birthday present.
As the defense portrayed it, the case against Carona was built on lies by Haidl and other former associates, including Jaramillo, all of whom sought favorable deals in their own criminal cases as payback for their cooperation.
The government did not call Jaramillo to the stand. Prosecutors never revealed why, and interpretations from courtroom observers and other legal outsiders varied: The government was confident enough in its case that it was unnecessary to call Jaramillo; Jaramillo was such a risky witness that Carona’s attorneys could have had a field day cross-examining him, undercutting his worth.
“It’s a sad day for Orange County that we had an elected official found guilty of a significant crime -- especially when that person was the chief law enforcement officer of the county,” Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach said Friday.
But he said Sandra Hutchens, Carona’s replacement, has made strides to improve the Sheriff Department’s reputation. “I’m sorry we had to go through this process, but we’ll be a better county and we’ll move forward.”
Supervisor Chris Norby said he was relieved the trial was over. “We can put this tawdry episode behind us,” he said. “There is, I guess, a gray area between poor personal judgment and criminal activity. . . . Despite being exonerated of five of the six charges, he has paid a heavy personal and political toll.”
The former sheriff was not the only one indicted. Deborah Carona still faces a charge of conspiracy, and Hoffman, Carona’s former mistress, faces charges of conspiracy, mail fraud and bankruptcy fraud. Both are awaiting trial.
At the end of his remarks after the verdict Friday, Carona declined to take questions. As he walked away from reporters, he remarked: “I definitely got to get a job.”
Times staff writers Tami Abdollah, Nathan Olivarez- Giles and Susannah Rosenblatt contributed to this report.