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A Sheriff's Rising Star Is Dimmed by Scandal

January 21, 2006|Christine Hanley and Paul Pringle | Times Staff Writers

Two of his former aides are facing criminal prosecution. Federal agents have subpoenaed his financial and administrative records. State investigators are examining his conduct with women.

And he's the sheriff.

Scandals and controversies have clouded Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona's public and private lives, dimming the prospects of a man whose political future once seemed unlimited.

Carona's official biography describes him as "America's sheriff," the handle CNN's Larry King gave him after the successful hunt for the killer of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, whose kidnap-murder captivated the nation.

The sheriff's camera-grabbing performance in the 2002 case made him an overnight sensation in Republican circles -- a would-be contender for lieutenant governor and rumored candidate for a Bush administration post.

He met with White House political strategist Karl Rove to plot career moves.

But as Carona prepares for what could be a tougher-than-expected reelection drive, America and higher office will have to wait.

"It's a matter of whether he can rehabilitate himself," said Republican political consultant Kevin Spillane, who had predicted big things for Carona in his post-Runnion glory days.

Rehabilitation would require Carona to overcome a siege of allegations and embarrassing disclosures. Many center on bribery and election-law charges against two sheriff's officials, and accusations that Carona sexually harassed two women.

Others have raised doubts about a life-shaping story he has often told of finding his mother dead from alcoholism.

And while Carona has not been charged with breaking the law, the turmoil around him has fueled criticism of his judgment, character and use of authority.

The sheriff declined to be interviewed for this story because he believes The Times has "fabricated" material about him in the past, said Michael Schroeder, his unpaid attorney and political advisor. Schroeder, a former chairman of the California Republican Party, said Carona has done nothing wrong, remains popular in Orange County and will be reelected.

Spillane and other analysts agree that Carona begins his bid for a third term as the favorite, in large part because of the county's low crime rate and the scant name recognition of his election opponents.

But Carona's challengers have been given plenty of ammunition, said John J. Pitney Jr., a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

"Taken individually, these things aren't fatal," Pitney said, "but taken together, they could add up to real trouble."

In addition to the pending prosecution of an assistant sheriff and captain, and a state investigation into the sexual harassment allegations, The Times has learned that federal officials have subpoenaed records from Carona's reserve deputy program and election committee.

And America's sheriff may even have a Russian problem.

Photographs have surfaced of Carona cradling a young woman in his arms during a 2002 Moscow trip, and of her wearing the sheriff's uniform jacket in a hotel.

Schroeder said the woman was an official translator and the photos are innocent.

But the images, obtained by The Times, published in the OC Weekly and linked to an anti-Carona website, have not helped to restore his reputation, critics and others say.

The married Carona has portrayed himself as a Christian conservative, saying his "personal relationship with Jesus" is the most important thing in his life, followed by his family.

"A picture is worth a thousand words," said Jim Moreno, Orange County regional director for the Democratic Party. "There's a thread that continues through each of these stories, and I think it's probably poor judgment."

Not so, said Shawn Steel, another former state Republican chairman. He said "there are no dark secrets" about the sheriff, and his standing with voters is solid.

"Mike is a very, very popular guy," Steel said.


Carona, 50, is charismatic and well-spoken, a balding, squarely built man who spends time in the gym and prefers his uniform to business suits. He is at his best when addressing a roomful of constituents, engaging them as both a tough-talking crime fighter and empathetic community-builder.

The sheriff has earned praise for launching one of the state's first Amber alert systems and for promoting treatment for jailed drug addicts.

Carona's original campaign resume showcased his brains, perhaps because he had no street-cop experience. The resume listed three college degrees, numerous education certificates, and his membership in Mensa, the organization of people with high IQs.

That was in 1998, when the Santa Monica native jumped from a largely invisible job as the county's appointed marshal to succeed longtime Sheriff Brad Gates, who retired. Carona won a second term in 2002 without opposition.

Today, considering his smarts, even some of Carona's early supporters are baffled at his missteps as head of California's second-largest Sheriff's Department.

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