A fiery political watchdog in Orange County testified Wednesday that she schooled former Sheriff Michael S. Carona on campaign finance laws during his first run for office and warned him to look out for laundered contributions aimed at circumventing the local donor limit of $1,000.
Shirley Grindle, a former aeronautics engineer who has devoted her retirement to enforcing county campaign rules, said she sat down with Carona in her living room in Orange on Jan. 13, 1997, after he called and asked for a meeting. She still has her calendar from that year, and it was displayed on courtroom monitors for everyone to see.
"I explained to Mr. Carona that he should be aware of and suspicious of [certain] contributions, particularly those that came in from numerous employees from the same company. . . . He should question them or have his treasurer question them," Grindle said. "I explained to him this is a serious violation."
Grindle was one of six witnesses to take the stand Wednesday in the trial of Carona and his former mistress Debra Hoffman, who are charged with trading the powers of the sheriff's office for their own profit. One of the allegations against Carona is that he knew Newport Beach millionaire Don Haidl laundered at least $30,000 during his first campaign by reimbursing check-writing contributors with cash.
Prosecutors called other witnesses to testify about campaign issues.
The general manager of Nationwide Auction Systems, David Nelson, testified that Haidl reimbursed him for a $1,000 donation to Carona in 1998. Haidl once owned Nationwide, and Nelson said he made the contribution because Haidl asked him to.
Also, former sheriff's Capt. Marty Kasules testified that he was appointed as Newport Beach harbor master by Carona shortly after the first election, and was pressured to raise money for the sheriff while serving in that role. Kasules said he was threatened with a demotion by former Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo if he did not come through. Kasules recalled arranging a dinner attended by Carona and four contributors.
Grindle, the last witness called Tuesday, is well-known for her dogged efforts to keep politicians honest. Her passion came across during her testimony, so much so that when she was done for the day, U.S. District Judge Andrew J. Guilford noted that "for the record, she is a pistol."
Grindle proudly told jurors about her Tin Cup ordinance. The initiative, which stands for Time Is Now, Clean Up Politics, was passed in the late 1970s and was later expanded in the early 1990s, restricting individual donations to $1,000. Grindle said she monitors fundraising by Orange County officials on tens of thousands of 5-by-8 index cards that keep track of every contributor.
Turning her attention to her meeting with Carona, Grindle had the courtroom in stitches when she was asked by Senior Assistant U.S. Atty. Kenneth Julian to identify him. "The bald-headed guy with the red tie," she said, as opposed to one of Carona's attorneys, Jeff Rawitz, "the bald-headed guy with the yellow tie."
Grindle said she was impressed when Carona phoned her back in 1997 to arrange a meeting, "knowing that I kind of was the person who oversaw campaign laws" and "to make sure he knew what the rules were."
They met for about 45 minutes, she estimated, and discussed the Tin Cup law and money laundering. Grindle said she would be calling him if she saw anything irregular. When he left, she said, Carona seemed to understand everything they talked about.
Weeks ago, a longtime fundraiser for Carona, Lisa Jaramillo, who is the wife of George Jaramillo, testified that Carona considered Grindle a pain and talked in a derogatory manner about her.
Lisa Jaramillo said that Grindle called on many occasions to complain about problems with Carona's campaign reports, including some of the $1,000 donations that prosecutors allege were laundered into Carona's campaign.
Grindle was not asked about those complaints Tuesday.
She was being cross-examined as court adjourned and is expected to return next week for more questioning from Carona attorney Brian A. Sun.