Lawyers for former Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona said Thursday that dozens of federal prosecutors have disqualified themselves from prosecuting his corruption case -- and the defense wants to know why.
Carona's lawyers disclosed in federal court in Santa Ana that federal prosecutors in Los Angeles and Orange counties have declared an unspecified conflict of interest and said they could not be involved in Carona's prosecution.
The only prosecutors who haven't disqualified themselves are the two handling the case, Assistant U.S. Attys. Brett Sagel and Kenneth Julian, defense lawyers told U.S. District Judge Andrew J. Guilford.
"We want to find out why. How is it that these two gentlemen are exempt from this?" Carona lawyer H. Dean Steward said after the hearing. "We cannot get an official answer."
Sagel and Julian did not discuss the matter in court, and Thom Mrozek, a U.S. attorney's spokesman, would say only that the two prosecutors are "working in conjunction with prosecutors at the Department of Justice in Washington."
Thursday's hearing was one of the first glimpses into what Carona's lawyers have promised will be an aggressive defense. Defense lawyers said they may ask that Carona's two prosecutors be removed from the case, that the trial be moved out of Orange County and that a secretly recorded conversation between Carona and an associate be deemed inadmissible.
The reason the other lawyers disqualified themselves from prosecuting Carona could prove significant. Brian A. Sun, a Carona lawyer, said he wants to determine whether Sagel and Julian have the same conflict of interest that prompted the other prosecutors to step aside from the case. If there is a similar conflict, he could ask that the two prosecutors be removed from the case. Such a ruling could significantly delay Carona's trial, now scheduled for June 10.
Neither Steward nor Sun disclosed how they learned of the prosecutors' disqualifications.
"We've heard it from many different sources," Steward said after the hearing. He declined to elaborate.
One former federal prosecutor, Wayne Gross, said Thursday that he recused himself from the case because he worked on anti-crime initiatives with Carona. Gross, who was chief of the U.S. attorney's Santa Ana office, is now in private practice. No other prosecutors have publicly discussed the matter.
Carona is accused of selling his office for tens of thousands of dollars in cash and gifts and failing to document the donations on conflict-of-interest disclosure forms.
Carona, 52, retired earlier this month with three years remaining in his term.
Charged along with Carona are his wife, Deborah, and a woman whom prosecutors and others described as Carona's longtime mistress, Debra V. Hoffman. Both women are accused of accepting gifts from Carona supporters and failing to disclose them on conflict-of-interest forms. In addition, prosecutors allege, Hoffman committed fraud by failing to list some of her assets in a bankruptcy filing.
All have pleaded not guilty.
Defense attorneys raised the disqualification issue Thursday because they said they were having difficulty getting prosecutors to provide them information about the basis for prosecutors' stepping down from the case.
The lawyers also told Guilford about several motions they intend to file before the trial. Among them: Deborah Carona and Hoffman may ask that the cases against them be dismissed for what they describe as "outrageous government conduct." Attorneys for the women allege that prosecutors charged them because Michael Carona would not plead guilty.
Deborah Carona and Hoffman may ask for separate trials, and the defense may ask for the trial to be moved to a new location because pretrial publicity in Orange County could taint potential jurors, the lawyers said.