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5 donors got reserve badges for giving to Carona, witness says

Gabriel Nassar tells the jury how the items were handed out in return for donations of $5,000 each.

December 06, 2008|Christine Hanley | Hanley is a Times staff writer

An Orange County businessman testified Friday that five people received sheriff's reserve badges in exchange for contributing $5,000 each to the campaign of former Sheriff Michael S. Carona.

The testimony came in the sixth week of a federal corruption case that centers on accusations that the former sheriff sold off the powers of his office for thousands of dollars in cash and gifts and conspired to hide political donations that exceeded county contribution limits.

On Friday, government witness Gabriel Nassar said he made a $100 bet with Carona and former Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo during Carona's first term that he could raise $25,000 by selling sheriff's reserve badges for $5,000.

After being informed of the $1,000 local contribution limit by Carona and Jaramillo, Nassar said, he told all five people that each of them had to come up with separate checks totaling $5,000.

"It was a simple bet," he said.

Nassar said Carona and Jaramillo came to his Lake Forest business afterward to thank him. He said he asked them to pay up the bet, and that one of them -- he said he didn't recall who -- pulled a $100 bill out of his pocket. He said Carona and Jaramillo signed it: "We will never doubt you again."

The jury was shown two pictures taken that day, one with all three men holding up the $100 bill.

The corruption case alleges that Carona misused the powers of the sheriff's office to enrich himself and others even before he won election in 1998. Carona's wife and his longtime mistress, Debra Hoffman, are also charged. Hoffman was separated from the case midway through the trial, and she and Carona's wife will be tried at a later date.

Among the allegations against Carona is that he knew contributions were being laundered into his campaign to circumvent the local $1,000 cap on donations for each election cycle.

He is also accused of creating a special category of professional reserves as a shell to raise money for his political war chest, issuing badges and gun permits to wealthy professionals who were recruited into the ranks.

Newport Beach millionaire Don Haidl, who was appointed by Carona to serve as the assistant sheriff of the reserve program, has previously testified that badges could be bought for a $1,000 contribution. The goal, Haidl said, was to have 1,000 people in the program and raise $1 million for Carona.

Nassar has long been a colorful figure in Orange County political circles. He gained notoriety by helping develop a plan to award "commissioner" badges to contributors to the 1998 campaign of Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas. That idea was abandoned because of the potential for abuse, but not before Nassar ordered himself a badge that he later returned at Rackauckas' request.

Nassar made headlines again in 2000 as one of Carona's professional reserves for failing to disclose an earlier arrest for allegedly making threatening phone calls, a charge that was later dismissed. He also did not reveal he was once the subject of a restraining order. Nassar resigned as a reserve that same year, and his gun permit was revoked. He was later reinstated as a reserve.

Before testifying Friday, Nassar was granted "use immunity" by the government, meaning his testimony cannot be used against him. With an injured right arm in a sling, Nassar was allowed to take his courtroom oath with his left hand raised before he climbed into the witness box and admitted he sold badges for Carona in 2001.

Nassar said he broached the idea with Jaramillo, and then Carona, and that both men were receptive to it. Jaramillo told him that "he wished he had thought of it," Nassar said.

Nassar said one of the people he approached was his friend Mehdi Hatamian, a vice president at Broadcom Corp. Hatamian agreed to donate $1,000 himself and come up with four other checks, Nassar testified. Hatamian, who testified after Nassar, admitted he reimbursed his mother and three other relatives for their contributions.

Hatamian later hosted a barbecue for Carona, and Broadcom Corp. co-founder and Anaheim Ducks owner Henry Samueli attended. Jurors were shown pictures of Hatamian, Carona, Nassar and Samueli at that gathering.

As a reserve himself, Nassar testified, he considered the badge a perk and used it with great satisfaction, whether it was getting out of traffic tickets "several times," getting free admission to movies or helping facilitate service for a friend at a passport office.

"Did it give you a fair amount of glee to be able to go into movie theaters and flash your badge?" asked defense attorney Jeff Rawitz.

"It's a great feeling," Nassar said, repeating himself when Rawitz followed up with a similar question. "Yes, getting out of tickets and doing all this. It's a great benefit. Sure."

Hatamian, on the other hand, acknowledged under cross-examination that his credentials didn't help get him out of a traffic ticket the one time he tried.

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christine.hanley@latimes.com

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