by Gary Hunter
“I need a sheriff I can trust. Lying will not be tolerated in this courtroom, especially by the county’s highest-ranking law enforcement officer.”
That was what U.S. District Court Judge Andrew J. Guilford told former Orange County, California Sheriff Mike S. Carona just before sentencing him to 5½ years in prison, two years supervised release and a $125,000 fine.
Carona was indicted on multiple corruption charges in October 2007. Almost a year and a half passed before he finally went to trial. In late 2008, jurors began hearing testimony from 60 witnesses in court proceedings that lasted two months. [See: PLN, Feb. 2009, p.1].
Carona first came to prominence in 2002 when a search for the killer of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion attracted national media attention. Photogenic and charismatic, he quickly cemented his place as the top lawman for the nation’s fifth largest sheriff’s department by promising voters that criminals would not be coddled.
But it wasn’t long before Carona himself was under investigation. He was forced to resign in January 2008 amid an array of federal charges that included conspiracy, mail fraud, money laundering and witness tampering. [See: PLN, July 2008, p.30].
One of the witnesses who testified against the ex-sheriff was multimillionaire Don Haidl. Carona had appointed Haidl to the post of assistant sheriff and director of a deputy reserve program, in exchange for Haidl’s contribution of $30,000 to Carona’s election campaign. Haidl used his position with the Sheriff’s Department as an opportunity to pass out quasi-official badges to friends, relatives and associates.
Haidl was eventually indicted, but reached a plea agreement with federal prosecutors and became a government informant. Prosecutors told the jury that Haidl’s “gifts” to Carona were actually in excess of $430,000.
Haidl met with Carona three times in 2007 while wearing a wiretap; during those meetings the two spoke of untraceable money and secret bank accounts. Carona bragged about his extramarital affair and a Las Vegas love nest, and described himself as the “most lethal” politician in Orange County.
The wiretaps revealed a dark side of Carona, whose profuse use of profanity and racist and sexist language stood in stark contrast to his public persona as a law enforcement professional who spoke at church meetings and prayer breakfasts.
Another former Orange County Sheriff’s official, George Jaramillo, also agreed to help prosecutors, though he didn’t testify at Carona’s trial. Jaramillo, a former police sergeant and assistant sheriff, was Carona’s campaign consultant during the sheriff’s first run for office, and, like Carona, received bribes from Haidl. Carona had fired Jaramillo in 2004 after it became known that he had interfered with a sexual assault investigation involving Haidl’s son, Greg.
Jaramillo pleaded guilty to charges of tax evasion and money laundering, and was sentenced on September 14, 2009 to 27 months in prison, three years supervised release and a $50,000 fine. He also will have to forfeit any money he receives in his wrongful termination lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Department. Haidl pleaded guilty to filing a false income tax return, but has not yet been sentenced.
Other prosecution witnesses at Carona’s trial testified about influence peddling, envelopes stuffed with cash, secret bank accounts and hidden cameras. Carona was accused of taking bribes and using his office to enrich himself. Thus, it was a surprise to everyone when, in January 2009, the federal jury acquitted Carona of all charges except for one count of witness tampering.
Immediately following the verdict, Carona joined his attorneys in a jubilant celebration outside the Santa Ana court-house. A week later he and his supporters held a victory celebration at an Orange County restaurant, compliments of the Jones Day law firm which had represented him free of charge. Carona called the verdict “an absolute miracle” and evidence of God’s forgiveness.
But on April 27, 2009, when it came time for sentencing, Judge Guilford was not as forgiving. Expressing disdain for Carona’s post-verdict festivities, Guilford remarked, “I cannot understand the unrestrained celebration and proclamations of innocence and complete vindication,” considering that Carona had been found guilty of witness tampering.
The judge made it clear that he believed Haidl’s testimony was completely credible. Even the jurors admitted that they had found the former sheriff not guilty of corruption charges only because the statute of limitations had expired.
Carona’s attorneys requested probation, saying that any greater punishment would “just not be right.” However, Judge Guilford made his position clear. “What goes around, comes around,” he said. “There will be no coddling here.”
Carona appealed his conviction to the Ninth Circuit on May 6, 2009, and remains free pending a ruling by the appellate court. If his conviction and federal prison sentence stand he can expect to serve at least 4 years and 8 months behind bars – which is a long fall for a lawman once known as “America’s Sheriff.”
Sources: Associated Press, Los Angeles Times
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