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Haidl ends his Carona testimony

Informant describes how the ex-sheriff repeatedly reassured him that they would get away with bribery.

November 14, 2008|Christine Hanley | Hanley is a Times staff writer.

Prosecutors wrapped up testimony from their key witness on Thursday by playing secretly recorded conversations that they said capture former Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona admitting he received cash payments from Newport Beach millionaire Don Haidl and plotted to cover it up.

Haidl, on the witness stand for a fifth day, said Carona repeatedly tried to reassure him that the transactions would be untraceable.

And on the tapes, Carona can be heard telling him it would take a "surgeon" to discern discrepancies in his banking accounts and that "it just blends in; you're not going to see it any place."

During one exchange at the Bayside Restaurant in Newport Beach in August 2007, Carona informed Haidl that there was one time when he might have deposited $1,000 into his bank account. Haidl, worried, wanted to know whether it could be disguised. Carona appeared to suggest using his son as a cover.

"You're going to see . . . a pretty legitimate pattern. . . . Something would come in and go someplace else. . . . People would give Matthew money for his birthday and Christmas . . . more money than I ever had in my wallet," Carona said. "He would leave it around the house. I would take the money . . . write a check into his account or toss it in my account and we would have bought him a PlayStation or something like that."

Carona and his former longtime mistress Debra Hoffman are on trial on charges they traded the powers of the sheriff's office for their own profit. Haidl has pleaded guilty to lesser tax charges and has been cooperating with the government for nearly two years. As part of his agreement, he wore a wire to record three meetings with Carona in the summer of 2007.

Haidl's relationship with Carona is central to the government's case. He has told jurors that he bought full access to the resources of the sheriff's department and a "Get Out of Jail Free" card by illegally funneling at least $30,000 into Carona's first campaign in 1998, letting him use his yacht and planes, paying for vacations and bribing him with cash payments of $1,000 a month for more than three years.

With no paper trail of cash payments, prosecutors are relying on statements Carona made during the secretly recorded meetings and have been playing portions of them throughout Haidl's testimony.

One of Carona's attorneys, Jeff Rawitz, zeroed in on Haidl's undercover work as he began his cross-examination late Thursday, characterizing Haidl as a skilled actor who was playing a role during his meetings with Carona and was well-rehearsed for his direct testimony. Rawitz asked Haidl, who was once worth $25 million and ran eight companies, what the Sheriff's Department could give him that he didn't already have.

Haidl admitted under questioning that he never got any business deals through his relationship with the Sheriff's Department and that he did not get anyone out of jail, including a sister and his son. Haidl told Rawitz his sister was better off in jail.

But he acknowledged that he would have liked to have been able to free his son, who was convicted in a high-profile sexual assault case: "If I could've, I would've."

Earlier Thursday, prosecutors played more than a dozen segments of the obscenity-laced tapes for jurors.

In one segment, Carona recalled a time when Haidl handed him a "folder." After he saw what was inside, he gave it back and said, "Don, we should have never been doing that."

Questioned about that exchange, Haidl told the jury that there was cash inside the folder.

The conversation took place in his Newport Beach home in July 2002, the night his son was arrested in a sexual assault case.

He said he told Carona that he couldn't afford to give him any more cash because he was putting his money into his son's defense.

Carona gave the money back, Haidl said, and it was the only time he did so.

During other portions of the tapes, Haidl told Carona many times that he was willing to get up on the stand and lie as long as he could be absolutely sure that there were no videotapes or other evidence of the cash payments.

He said investigators could go back 100 years and wouldn't find anything because it all came out of his private safe. Haidl mentioned entrepreneur Martha Stewart to underscore his concern about being caught committing perjury.

Carona told him that there was nothing traceable on his end either. And he also said that if called to testify, each would be able to learn through his attorney what the other said on the witness stand.

"Your answer is my answer," Carona said.

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christine.hanley@latimes.com

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