Mike Carona’s fall from “America’s Sheriff” to convicted felon reached bottom Monday as a federal judge gave Orange County’s former top law enforcement officer a half-hour lecture about honesty before sentencing him to 5 1/2 years in prison for attempting to obstruct a grand jury investigation.
“I need a sheriff I can trust,” U.S. District Judge Andrew J. Guilford told Carona. “Lying will not be tolerated in this courtroom, especially by the county’s highest-ranking law enforcement officer.”
The sentence marks the final major act in a case that shadowed the state’s second-largest sheriff’s office for years and changed the reputation of an ambitious lawman who moved into the national spotlight in 2002 with the search for the killer of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion.
Back then, Carona was seen as a rising political star. But instead, a long-running federal investigation into allegations of misconduct led to his indictment on multiple counts of corruption. After a two-month trial, Carona was acquitted in January of five charges, but convicted of witness tampering.
The judge noted that a theme of Carona’s campaigns for sheriff was that he would not coddle criminals.
“What goes around, comes around,” Guilford said. “There will not be any coddling here.”
The judge also expressed disappointment about Carona’s post-verdict celebration outside the Santa Ana courthouse after the jury verdict.
At the time, the former sheriff had described the verdict as “an absolute miracle” that reflected the forgiveness of God. Carona, his family, attorneys and other supporters held a party about a week later that cost $3,700 at an Orange County restaurant. The Jones Day law firm, which represented him free of charge, picked up the tab.
“I cannot understand the unrestrained celebration and proclamations of innocence and complete vindication,” Guilford said of the courthouse celebration.
As the judge handed down the sentence, Carona, 53, was stoic with chin up and lips pursed. His hands remained clasped on his lap. During his opportunity to speak to the court, he did not address the charges and simply thanked Guilford for his courtesy and for allowing him into the courtroom to contest the case.
The judge agreed to let Carona remain free on bail until July 24, in part so that he can attend his son’s high school graduation. He asked prosecutors and defense attorneys to prepare arguments about whether Carona should continue to remain free on bail pending an appeal. In addition to the prison term, Guilford fined the former sheriff $125,000. Carona must serve 85% of his sentence before he will be eligible for release.
After sentencing, Carona declined to comment. Brian A. Sun, one of his attorneys, said that they respect the court’s decision but disagree with it. Unlike their jubilation in January, there was virtually no reaction from Carona’s wife and friends who attended the sentencing.
During the hearing, Assistant U.S. Atty. Brett A. Sagel argued that Carona deserved to go to prison because he had shaken the public’s trust in law enforcement and disrupted the operations of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. Prosecutors sought a nine-year sentence.
Carona has blamed everyone else for his predicament, Sagel said, including the news media, prosecutors and Don Haidl, a former assistant sheriff who was the government’s star witness.
Defense attorneys argued for probation and community service, contending that the government had snared their client into witness tampering and that the acquittals should not be ignored.
“This is not the usual witness tampering case,” Sun said. “Mr. Carona is a flawed man -- someone who has made mistakes that have led to public exposure and humiliation the likes of which we haven’t seen and won’t see for some time.”
But sentencing him to more than probation would “just not be right,” Sun told Guilford.
Carona’s trial was peppered with accounts of influence peddling within his administration. Witnesses talked about bribes handed over in cash-stuffed envelopes, hidden cameras in the sheriff’s department and reserve badges given to supporters and those with political connections.
The testimony also exposed the raw details of his relationship with a longtime mistress, including tales of a love nest, Las Vegas getaways and secret bank accounts.
The jury acquitted Carona on charges that he misused his office to enrich himself and his associates in pursuit of hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, bribes and gifts such as vacations, World Series tickets and Montblanc pens.
During interviews after the trial, jurors said that they believed Carona had accepted cash and gifts, but that the statute of limitations prevented them from considering many of the alleged acts.
The conviction for witness tampering relates to an August 2007 meeting between Carona and Haidl at a Newport Beach restaurant. At the time, federal prosecutors were years into their investigation of Carona’s administration and Haidl was cooperating by wearing a hidden microphone. Guilford said during sentencing that he found Haidl credible.
Carona’s attorneys argued the tapes should not have been allowed as evidence because prosecutors knew Carona was being represented by an attorney at the time.
Played repeatedly during the trial, the tapes captured a profane Carona making sexist and racist remarks. He bragged about being the “most lethal” politician in Orange County and sounded far removed from the man who exuded professionalism and spoke with passion at churches and prayer breakfasts.
During one exchange, Haidl told Carona that money he had given him came from a private safe and was untraceable.
“Well, on my end of it, completely untraceable,” Carona said.
At other points in the tape, Carona vowed that he would deny receiving money from Haidl, and that they could track each other’s grand jury testimony through their attorneys.
“Your answer is my answer,” Carona told Haidl.
Times staff writers Dan Weikel and Tony Barboza contributed to this report.