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Inventor Sought to Influence Carona

Man tied to ex-official under investigation gave O.C. sheriff a $45,000 party, lawyers say.

March 25, 2004|Christine Hanley | Times Staff Writer

A Newport Beach inventor who paid then-Assistant Orange County Sheriff George Jaramillo to promote a safety device also tried to win favor with Sheriff Michael S. Carona by throwing him an expensive birthday bash and raising money for his first campaign, a lobbyist and lawyers for the businessman said Wednesday.

Charles Gabbard, founder of CHG Safety Technologies, helped arrange a breakfast fundraiser for Carona at the exclusive Pacific Club in February 2000 and spent about $45,000 three months later on a birthday party for him at Villa Nova restaurant, according to Gabbard and others who attended the Newport Beach events.

The disclosures come as federal and local authorities investigate public corruption allegations against Jaramillo.

Among the issues, investigators have said, is whether Jaramillo wrongfully used his influence to help the company, which had hired the assistant sheriff as a consultant. Gabbard's firm paid Jaramillo and his wife a total of $25,000 between 2000 and 2001.

Carona fired the assistant sheriff last week, months after the Orange County Grand Jury began investigating allegations that Jaramillo had tried to protect the son of a colleague, Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl, from rape and potential drug charges.

Sheriff spokesman Jon Fleischman said Wednesday that Carona only recently became aware that Jaramillo had been paid by the company, even though Jaramillo had disclosed payments he received on his annual ethics reports.

Fleischman said Carona and the Orange County district attorney are now looking into the extent to which sheriff's resources were used to demonstrate that a computer chip designed by Gabbard could help put an end to police pursuits. Carona could not be reached to comment on the company's statements that it raised money for the sheriff and paid for his birthday party.

Jaramillo has maintained his innocence and said he'd be cleared of any wrongdoing. He and his attorney, Peter Scalisi, have declined to comment on his relationship with Gabbard's company.

Company officials said they had hired Jaramillo to help market a device that would allow police to safely disable a moving vehicle, if equipped with the special chip, by shutting off its electrical system with a laser device. The company hoped to win a statewide contract, but the state Legislature has not approved the technology, and CHG is nearly broke, company officials say.

The company first came in contact with the Sheriff's Department through a lobbyist.

Bob Levy, owner of Enviro Communications Inc., said he was advising Gabbard's company free of charge at the request of retired El Segundo Police Chief Tim Grimmonds.

Levy said he arranged to meet Carona in his office about four years ago to introduce himself and the technology. Carona told Levy the device sounded interesting, then passed him on to Jaramillo, Levy said.

A short time later, the assistant sheriff's wife, Lisa Jaramillo, and Gabbard arranged an intimate breakfast fundraiser at the Pacific Club, Levy said.

Within a few weeks, George Jaramillo arranged to put on the first demonstration of the device at the former El Toro Marine base. He told Levy he had brought the entire command staff together to watch.

Gabbard said his company paid for a helicopter and other expenses for the demonstration. Retired Sheriff's Lt. Orville King, who helped arrange the demonstration, said Wednesday that at least one patrol car and two officers were used for the demonstration.

On May 18, 2000, Gabbard paid for a lavish party at Villa Nova to celebrate Carona's 45th birthday.

Attorney Michael C. Olson, who represents CHG, said Gabbard spent at least $45,000 and as much as $50,000 to host the event. Gabbard believed that as the county's top cop, Carona might be able to help him promote the halting device, Olson said.

Tracy Westen, chief executive officer of the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonprofit research organization in Los Angeles, said it's possible the party could violate laws governing campaign contributions, depending on whether the sheriff provided something in return.

"It certainly creates the appearance of a quid pro quo, whether or not the reality is there," Westen said. "The appearance is often as bad as the reality because it undermines public confidence in the system."

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Times staff writers H.G. Reza and Kimi Yoshino contributed to this report.

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