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DANA PARSONS

A laconic tale of corruption

November 07, 2008|DANA PARSONS

The sentences came out clipped. If one or two words could answer a question, that's what the courtroom got. More than once during his first couple days on the witness stand, he had to be reminded to speak into the microphone, because many of his words seemed to be dying about six inches after they left his mouth.

If Don Haidl had a story to tell in federal court this week, it wasn't going to come with any mustard on it. As Assistant U.S. Atty. Brett Sagel shepherded Haidl through his role in the allegedly corrupt administration of former Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona, the dark-suited Haidl told a laconic tale of greed and power that in some respects seemed to defy credibility.

Not that Haidl, who is cooperating as a government witness in the hopes of a lighter sentence after a guilty plea to filing a false federal tax return, came across as a liar. It was more that the behind-the-scenes look he provided of Carona's former inner circle involved such brazen and seemingly mindless corruption that it left you shaking your head.

If Haidl's testimony, which is continuing today, is to be believed, jurors must accept that:

Within days of meeting Haidl for the first time -- about three months before Carona captured the sheriff's post in 1998 -- then-candidate Carona and his top aide George Jaramillo talked to Haidl about skirting campaign-finance laws.

Within two to four weeks of that first meeting, Carona, who was married, told Haidl that Jaramillo's law partner Debra Hoffman was Carona's girlfriend.

At their first meeting, Carona talked with Haidl about a future role in a Carona administration. They talked about Haidl getting a "get out of jail free card" and sharing in profits from future business deals that would come their way. About four months later, Carona offered Haidl the job of assistant sheriff and Haidl accepted.

Within six months of meeting Haidl, Carona began going to Haidl's Newport Beach home around the first of every month to pick up envelopes containing $1,000 in cash. Haidl described the payments as a form of insurance for himself against Carona taking money from others and, therefore, potentially bringing down his administration. The government's indictment alleges that Haidl gave Carona about $48,000 in cash between 1998 and mid-2002.

If all this offends your tender sensibilities, I'm with you. Much of the buzz leading up to the trial has been that Carona's infidelity and the vulgar language on some secretly recorded audiotapes might help sink him.

But that stuff sounds pretty mundane after listening to Haidl's emotionless depiction of how money dominated the mind-set of the tight Carona circle.

Asked why he initiated the cash payments in the fall of 1998, Haidl testified: "Because I became concerned with Carona and Jaramillo and their constant talk about money and greed. They seemed to be obsessed with money and business deals and didn't seem to have any understanding how the business world worked."

Fearful that they'd be done in by relatively penny-ante illegal gifts or money, Haidl said he settled on the thousand-a-month "allowance" so the two wouldn't feel the need to take money from others. He wanted to keep Carona out of trouble because he thought Carona had a future in higher office and wanted to follow him up the line.

Even if jurors don't dismiss that testimony as hard to swallow, they'll have to concede it's a novel approach.

And what did Haidl get for his money?

To my ear, that's when his story got even more curious. In broad strokes, Haidl indicated that he was wooed by promises of being in the Carona administration and availing himself of the "full police powers" that would come with it. Yet, he also testified that he had no such interests when he first met the sheriff-to-be.

And it has not been made clear, so far, exactly what he reaped from the money he sowed so freely.

When Sagel asked him Thursday morning what he got out of supporting Carona, Haidl replied: "I thought it would be fun. [Carona] was a very charming guy and also I'd have access to all the powers of the Sheriff's Department -- not that I needed it -- but it seemed like fun."

On its face, that sounds almost benign. That is, other than a high-ranking job in the Sheriff's Department for which Haidl wasn't compensated, what did Carona give him?

That question probably will matter to jurors who may well reason that if Haidl gave money to Carona, he must have gotten something worthwhile in return. And if he didn't get much in return, jurors may grapple with whether the monthly cash payments ever happened.

But then, they'd have to ask why Haidl would concoct the story. And that would lead to other tantalizing questions. And at the end of any trail is the audiotape that seems to indicate that Haidl and Carona talked about covering up cash payments.

If you charge me with getting way ahead of myself, I plead guilty. But it's that kind of trial. The temptation is to figure it out, to psychoanalyze.

Although we're all grown-ups in the courtroom, you don't want to contemplate that a candidate for the county's top law enforcement job hit the ground running with such a cavalier attitude toward law-breaking. And had no problem bringing in an outsider after nothing more than a first impression.

But if the somber Don Haidl is telling the truth, that's exactly what Orange County got from Mike Carona.

--

dana.parsons@latimes.com

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