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Radio hosts defend their Carona skits

KFI's John and Ken deny tainting jurors in trial of ex-O.C. sheriff.

April 19, 2008|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

In a small, square room with a view of the Hollywood Hills, KFI's John and Ken spend hours needling public officials and tossing out satirical and sometimes sophomoric lines that reach an estimated 1 million listeners per month.

Now, the radio provocateurs may have a surprisingly significant impact on the prosecution of a man who was once Orange County's most powerful law enforcement officer.

This week, attorneys for former Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona asked a federal judge to move his corruption trial out of Southern California to increase the odds of finding jurors who have not been tainted by the daily commute-hour banter of hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou.

Their shtick includes daily readings from a secretly recorded conversation in which Carona allegedly discussed concealing evidence that he accepted cash and gifts while running the state's second-largest sheriff's department.

During the readings, they have portrayed Carona and his former aide as "Sopranos"-style wise guys scheming to deceive prying FBI agents -- which, perhaps not by coincidence, is precisely the way federal prosecutors want jurors to see them.

They have also coached listeners to lie to get onto the jury by asserting in court that they don't listen to the program. The readings have been so constant and so inflammatory that Carona's attorneys say the former sheriff can't receive a fair trial anywhere within reach of KFI-AM (640), which is considerable.

Carona, his wife, Deborah, and former mistress, Debra V. Hoffman, are accused of selling the power of the sheriff's office for tens of thousands of dollars in unreported cash and gifts. The trial is scheduled for Aug. 26 and U.S. District Judge Andrew J. Guilford has not ruled on the request to move it.

During an advertising break in a recent broadcast, the hosts sat around a crescent-shaped desk and said they would feel no responsibility if the trial were moved because of them.

"We didn't file the motion. We didn't do this to get the trial moved," Chiampou said. "I think the judge is a baby if he grants it."

Kobylt said the Carona case was a natural for them. They had broadcast about past allegations of Carona's sexual exploits and covered the gang sexual assault trial of the son of Donald Haidl, a former assistant sheriff who secretly recorded the conversation with Carona.

In the past, they championed the execution of allegedly reformed gang leader Stanley Tookie Williams in a recurring segment called "The Tookie Must Die Hour." When an Orange County judge was charged with possession of child pornography, they advocated a write-in campaign to unseat him and broadcast from outside the judge's home.

"People always say, 'You're doing it for the ratings.' The answer is, 'Yes.' " Kobylt said. "We're trying to draw an audience and make money for the radio station. That doesn't mean we don't believe it."

This is not the first time attorneys have sought to move a trial at least in part because of the "John and Ken Show."

Lawyers for Alejandro Avila, accused in the 2002 slaying of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion -- a case that brought Carona fame -- made a similar but ultimately unsuccessful argument to have his trial moved.

When the talk-show hosts learned that jurors were going to be asked whether they listen to their program, they went on the air and urged them to lie. Avila was convicted and sentenced to death.

Denise Gragg, Avila's attorney, said she believes the talk show's stunts are so damaging that Carona's trial might be moved. She said such an expensive move might lead the FCC to take action.

"This is not a freedom of speech issue. I support their right to stand on their front lawns and say whatever they want to. But they don't have the rights to use the public airwaves to attempt to destroy an institution that's as precious a part of this country as anything else," Gragg said. "I think they should be fired. I think KFI has a responsibility to the public."

The idea that "John and Ken" drones will lie their way onto the jury and sabotage Carona's trial is nonsense, the hosts say.

"Our listeners do think for themselves. They're not going to go in there and say, 'John and Ken said "guilty" so I'll vote guilty,' " Chiampou said.

They also said their program can help balance a judicial system that in recent years has exonerated celebrities such as O.J. Simpson, Robert Blake and Michael Jackson.

"What the defense attorneys do is evil: They hire jury consultants to weed out intelligent people. Defense attorneys want uninformed idiots," Kobylt said.

"If they want to weed out our listeners because they're informed, they're going to have to work a little harder," Kobylt said.

And if the trial is moved, they may have done Carona a favor. Orange County's juries are considered among the most pro-prosecution in the state.

"They'll probably do anything to not have an Orange County jury," Chiampou said.

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stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

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