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's what U.S. District Judge Andrew J. Guilford told ex-Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona just before he sentenced him to 5½ years in prison, two years probation and a $125,000 fine.
Carona was indicted on multiple charges of corruption in October, 2007. Almost a year and a half passed before he finally came to trial. In late 2008 jurors began their odyssey through a 2-month trial that included testimony from 60 witnesses.
Carona first came to prominence in 2002 when the search for the killer of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion gained national media attention. Photogenic and charismatic, he quickly cemented his place as the nation's fifth highest law enforcement official with his promise to voters that criminals would not be coddled.
But it wasn't long before Carona himself was under investigation. In 2007 he was forced to resign amid an array of charges including conspiracy, mail fraud, money laundering and witness tampering.
One of the witnesses to testify against the ex-sheriff was multimillionaire Don Haidl. Carona had appointed Haidl to the post of assistant sheriff and head of a new deputy reserve program in exchange for Haidl's $30,000 contribution to his election campaign. Haidl used his appointment as an opportunity to pass out badges to friends, relatives and associates.
Haidl was eventually indicted but reached a plea bargain on the charges against him and became a government informant. Prosecutors told the jurors 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 extra-marital affair, a Las Vegas love nest and described himself as the "most lethal" politician in Orange County.
The wiretaps revealed a secret side of Carona whose profuse use of profanity, and racist and sexist language stood in stark contrast to the pious professional who often spoke at church meetings and prayer breakfasts.
Prosecution witnesses testified of influence peddling, envelopes stuffed with money, secret bank accounts and hidden cameras. Carona was accused of taking bribes, gifts and using his office to enrich himself. So it surprised everyone when, in January 2009, the jury acquitted Carona on all charges except for witness tampering.
Immediately following the verdict Carona joined his lawyers in a jubilant celebration outside the Santa Ana courthouse. 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 also 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 to be sentenced, Judge Guilford was not so forgiving. Expressing disdain for Carona's post-verdict festivities Guilford remarked, "I cannot understand the unrestrained celebration and proclamations of innocence and complete vindication."
The judge made it clear that he had found Haidl's testimony to be completely credible. Even the jurors admitted that they did not convict the former sheriff of corruption only because the statute of limitations had expired.
Carona's attorneys requested probation from the court saying that anything more would "just not be right."
But Judge Guilford made his position clear, "What goes around, comes around. There will be no coddling here," he said.
Carona will appeal the verdict. If the sentence stands he will serve a minimum of 4 years, 7 ½ months behind bars.
Sources: Associated Press, Los Angeles Times
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