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Complaint over free legal aid for Carona prompts state review

Activist says pro bono services for O.C. sheriff are unlawful gifts.

December 29, 2007|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

The state attorney general's office said Friday that it was looking into a complaint that legal aid donated to indicted Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona could violate a ban on expensive gifts to elected officials.

The challenge, brought by political gadfly Shirley Grindle of Orange, questions whether Carona can accept the services of two nationally known attorneys on a pro bono basis.

Attorney Brian A. Sun, who won a settlement with the federal government in the case of former Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, who was accused of being a Chinese spy, has volunteered to lead Carona's legal defense team in his fight against federal corruption charges.

John D. Cline, who represented former White House aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby and retired Marine Col. Oliver North, also volunteered to help defend Carona.

Mike Schroeder, Carona's political advisor, called Grindle's accusations "pure twaddle."

"She has a long history of filing frivolous complaints of what she would like the law to be. However, the donation of volunteer time has never been considered to be a contribution or a gift," Schroeder said.

Carona's current defense attorney, H. Dean Steward, will remain as part of the legal team, Schroeder said.

Cline could not be reached for comment.

Sun said Friday that he found similarities between Carona's case and others in which federal prosecutors hurried indictments.

"We do believe there's been some rush to judgment in this case," Sun said. "This is not a political corruption case, and Mike Carona did not sell his office. He has a distinguished record of public service."

Over the last three decades, Grindle, a 72-year-old grandmother, has earned a reputation for monitoring political campaign abuses. She has lobbied Orange County supervisors to establish a commission to enforce the 1978 law she wrote, known as TIN CUP -- or Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics. The ordinance applies to people elected to county offices such as supervisor, sheriff and district attorney.

Grindle said she lodged the complaint last week after reading a blog item about the two attorneys joining Carona's defense team. She said she consulted several lawyers before contacting the attorney general's office.

"If you're an elected official, getting pro bono work is considered a gift," Grindle said. "Elected officials can't accept gifts that are over $390 from any single source."

The complaint is under review, said Gareth Lacy, a spokesman for the attorney general's office.

The state's Fair Political Practices Commission is also aware of Grindle's complaint, a spokesman for that agency said.

Carona, his wife and his former mistress were indicted in October on felony conspiracy, mail-fraud and witness-tampering charges. They have pleaded not guilty.

Amid numerous calls for his resignation, Carona took a 60-day paid leave of absence effective Nov. 9 to fight the corruption charges.

He put Undersheriff Jo Ann Galisky in charge of the department in his absence.

California law requires that law enforcement officers or elected officials who lead departments must be removed from their jobs if they are convicted of a felony.

Carona's trial is expected to begin next summer. If he is found guilty and forced to leave office, the county Board of Supervisors would appoint a sheriff for the remainder of Carona's term, which expires in January 2011.

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david.reyes@latimes.com

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