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O.C. lawyer Cavallo gets jail time over bail referrals

The lawyer has been a key figure in the unfolding drama involving Carona.

December 15, 2007|By Christine Hanley | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
  • Attorney Joseph Cavallo, left, confers with attorney John Barnett prior to sentencing. Cavallo received a 180 day sentence in county jail.
Attorney Joseph Cavallo, left, confers with attorney John Barnett prior… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

A prominent defense attorney was sentenced Friday to six months in jail for paying a pair of bail bondsmen to steer business his way, marking the latest chapter in a broadening drama involving indicted Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona and his inner circle.

Joseph G. Cavallo, who gained notoriety representing the son of a former assistant sheriff in a sexual assault case, has until March to surrender. His license to practice law will be suspended as of Monday by the State Bar of California, which will ultimately determine whether he should be disbarred.

Cavallo, 52, could have been sentenced to more than three years in prison after pleading guilty earlier this year to three felonies in a kickback scheme in which he paid $50,000 to the Xtreme Bail Bonds agents for inmate referrals between June 2003 and August 2005.

Cavallo left the courthouse without speaking to reporters. His attorney, John D. Barnett, had argued his client should serve no time behind bars because he was less culpable than the bail agents -- Jorge Andres Castro and Alejandro de Jesus Cruz. The agents were each sentenced earlier this year to four-month terms.

But Orange County Superior Court Judge Carla M. Singer agreed with the sentence recommended by Deputy Dist. Atty. Ebrahim Baytieh. Although moved by letters from Cavallo's ex-wife and other supporters, she said Cavallo was the mastermind behind the conspiracy, and that corruption of the criminal-justice system was unsettling for everyone.

With the sentencing behind him and his law career up in the air, Cavallo remains a key figure in an ugly series of criminal and civil proceedings that have destroyed relationships between Carona and some of his once-closest political allies.

Cavallo first stepped into the public limelight with his aggressive defense of Gregory Haidl, son of former Orange County Assistant Sheriff Donald Haidl. The younger Haidl and two of his friends were accused of plying a 16-year-old girl with alcohol and sexually assaulting her in 2002 at his father's Corona del Mar home.

The attorney drew the ire of prosecutors and others with his courtroom attacks on the girl's credibility, starting with an opening statement in which he depicted her as a sex-crazed teen who sold drugs to children. After two sensational trials, Haidl and his co-defendants were convicted and are now serving six-year prison terms.

Cavallo later defended George Jaramillo, another former assistant sheriff and a onetime Carona confidant.

Jaramillo, once seen as Carona's eventual successor, was accused of using his position to help a Newport Beach businessman promote a laser device that would disable fleeing cars. Cavallo eventually took himself off the case, which ended with Jaramillo being sentenced to a year in jail. He was released last month after completing his sentence.

Cavallo now has a civil claim pending against the sheriff, accusing him of bullying and threatening him for representing Jaramillo.

Cavallo also has sued Haidl, alleging that the former assistant sheriff stiffed him on his legal fees in the son's sexual assault case.

Most recently, Cavallo, Haidl and Jaramillo have been cooperating with the federal government in a corruption case against Carona. The sheriff, his wife and his former mistress are targeted in a sweeping indictment that accuses Carona of engaging in a broad conspiracy to sell access to his office for tens of thousands of dollars and gifts. All three have pleaded not guilty and are free on bail.

One of the allegations in the indictment that has struck a chord of outrage among the rank and file is that the sheriff steered employees and their relatives to Cavallo as part of a kickback scheme that sources allege was hatched by the two men, the sheriff's mistress, Haidl and Jaramillo. Carona and the others allegedly agreed that Cavallo should kick back a share of proceeds from cases referred to him.

In one of these cases, Carona allegedly urged the wife of a deputy to hire Cavallo during a hospital visit as her husband lay dying.

christine.hanley@latimes.com

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