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Why Carona's defense is 'free'

A top lawyer sees his case as unfair. But the costs will still be high for the ex-O.C. sheriff.

January 28, 2008|Christian Berthelsen and Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writers

As former Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona prepares for trial on criminal charges that he sold access to his office for cash, favors and gifts, he has retained the best lawyers money can buy.

And he's getting them nearly free of charge. Jones Day, the fourth-largest law firm in the United States, with 2,300 lawyers worldwide and estimated annual revenue of $1.3 billion, has agreed to represent Carona on a pro bono basis. Based in Cleveland, the elite firm represents more than half the companies that constitute the Fortune 500.

Though not unheard of, the case -- defending an allegedly corrupt sheriff who is making about $200,000 a year in retirement -- is unusual by pro bono standards. Typically, pro bono work involves providing legal services to society's most vulnerable -- the indigent, the homeless, the infirm. And rather than corruption or graft, the cases more often concern discrimination and evictions.

"For us, that wouldn't be a typical pro bono client," said Esther F. Lardent, president and chief executive of the Pro Bono Institute at Georgetown University Law Center. "When we talk about modest means, we're typically talking about someone with significantly lower income."

So how did Carona get one of the country's top-flight law firms to pick up his case at virtually no charge? Jones Day would not say. But others familiar with the relationship between the fallen sheriff and the national law firm, who spoke on the condition they not be identified, said a series of quick and somewhat unexpected events sealed the deal:

Shortly before he was indicted on federal corruption charges, Carona approached Brian A. Sun, a top partner in Jones Day's Los Angeles office, acting on the recommendation of one lawyer who knew Sun and a second lawyer who knew him by reputation. Sun is a former federal prosecutor who obtained a $1.65-million settlement for the vindicated former Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee (the U.S. government and five news organizations, including the Los Angeles Times, paid the settlement).

Jones Day did not initially intend to do the case pro bono, but once the law firm took stock of Carona's finances, they realized he had little ability to pay a bill that could swell to $1 million or more.

The team initially considered creating a legal defense fund for which Carona could raise contributions, but there were complications about whether state law would limit the donations, and there was concern about negative publicity should any of the donations prove controversial. But Sun was interested in the case because he viewed it as a classic example of government overreach, and did not want to drop it. So rather than withdrawing, Sun offered to handle it pro bono as long as Carona resigned. Carona would continue to pay all costs of the defense, such as investigators and expert witnesses. Carona also agreed to pay Jones Day's legal fees up to the date of his resignation this month, and he continues to pay H. Dean Steward, a San Clemente attorney who has represented him for more than two years.

"To suggest that he's getting a free legal ride is wholly inaccurate," Sun said. "Mike and his family will likely expend much of their net worth defending these charges."

Lawyers familiar with Sun's work said they were not surprised he would take on a client like Carona, even if he weren't able to pay his typical fees.

"He represents people that he thinks are being unfairly treated by the justice system," said Janet I. Levine, a lawyer who has known Sun for 25 years. "You can't do that full time, obviously. But he has always been lucky to have the freedom to take on cases he really believes in."

It is difficult to assess the full value of Carona's assets from existing public records.

In his annual statement of economic interests filed last year, which covered the 2006 calendar year, the then-sheriff disclosed a stake in a living trust but did not report its value. He reported additional investments worth $110,000 to $1.1 million, but the forms did not require him to be more specific. He reported drawing $10,000 to $100,000 in income or loans from his own campaign fund, and two other small payments. Carona was not required to disclose whether he owned a house, its worth or its encumbrance by a mortgage.

One of the investments Carona reported was in Entrade, a property auction firm associated with his former political patron Donald Haidl, who has since pleaded guilty to a federal tax charge and agreed to serve as the government's chief witness against Carona.

At the time of his resignation from office, Carona was receiving total compensation from the county of nearly $209,000 per year. Given his years of service under his pension agreement, that will entitle him to an annual retirement salary of about $200,000.

Michael Schroeder, a lawyer and political ally of Carona, said the former sheriff's legal bills had already exceeded his net worth.

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