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Carona trial to offer a wealth of characters, stories

Jurors will finally hear the corruption case against the ex-sheriff.

October 26, 2008|Christine Hanley and Stuart Pfeifer | Hanley and Pfeifer are Times staff writers.

During nearly a decade as Orange County's sheriff, Michael S. Carona strove to maintain a polished image as a family-oriented, conservative and charismatic crime-fighter who could comfort victims and captivate crowds with his thoughtful words and reverent manner.

Behind the scenes, prosecutors allege, he was a graft-taking womanizer who prostituted his office even before he won it, trading political favors for hundreds of thousands in cash and gifts for himself and others, including vacations, World Series tickets and Mont Blanc pens.

When the ex-sheriff's corruption trial opens this week, jurors are likely to be introduced to two vastly different Mike Caronas.

Carona is the highest-ranking law enforcement official to be prosecuted in Orange County. The case has been years in the making, and the trial promises to be full of made-for-television moments -- stories of greed, infidelity and corrupted friendships. The government witness list of more than 100 people is expected to be a virtual who's who of local power circles. Testimony could last up to two months.

Carona faces prison time if convicted on charges that he misused the powers of his office in a broad conspiracy to enrich himself and others, including his wife, Deborah, and a longtime mistress, Debra Hoffman. Carona and Hoffman are being tried together.

His wife is awaiting a separate trial.

Defense attorneys Brian A. Sun and Jeffrey Rawitz are expected to attack the credibility of two key witnesses: Donald Haidl and George Jaramillo, both former assistant sheriffs who are expected to testify against their old boss. Both have pleaded guilty to felony tax charges and await sentencing. The attorneys, white-collar specialists from the prestigious Jones Day law firm, also argue that Carona reimbursed most of those who gave him gifts.

Sun and Rawitz are donating their services to Carona -- a gift that likely exceeds $1 million. They have not explained why.

In the 12 months since the indictment, both sides have papered the court with legal motions, including efforts to move the trial outside the county and bids to tossing out evidence.

One of the most contentious duels has been over the secretly recorded conversations between Carona and Haidl. On the tapes, Carona uses racist and sexist slurs, and boasts that the benefits of public office included hobnobbing with billionaires and getting "phenomenal" sex. They will also show, prosecutors say, Carona plotting to cover up a stream of illicit payments and trying to get Haidl to lie under oath to protect him.

The recordings, legal experts say, are probably the biggest threat to the defense.

"If all you had was Haidl's word against Carona's word, you wouldn't have much of a case," said Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor and former federal prosecutor. "Jurors want corroboration as much as possible, and that's what the tapes are going to give them: words right out of Carona's mouth that can be used against him."

The allegations date back to Carona's first campaign for sheriff in 1998.

Throughout his nine years in the post, Carona presented himself as a deeply Christian public servant uninterested in the perks of elected office. He has lived in a gated, though relatively modest, neighborhood in Orange since the 1980s, and worked his way up through the ranks of the obscure and now defunct county Marshal's Department before becoming Orange County's top cop.

Friends say he has always spoken lovingly of his wife of 28 years and brightens at any mention of their teenage son. He has received awards and other accolades for his efforts to bridge religious and ethnic divides in the county, and for promoting philanthropy.

In 2002, he won national acclaim when he led the hunt for the kidnapper and killer of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, warning the suspect in a camera-grabbing performance not to eat or sleep because they were coming after him. That equally steely and heart-tugging promise led CNN's Larry King to dub him "America's sheriff." Nearly overnight, Carona became a rising star in national Republican circles. His campaign for a second term was uncontested, and he was groomed as a prospective candidate for lieutenant governor or even U.S. senator.

During the trial, the government plans to show that away from the limelight, Carona was driven by money and the trappings of power.

Haidl, a self-made millionaire who became part of Carona's inner circle, is a chief witness for the government. The Newport Beach businessman made his fortune auctioning surplus police cars and assets seized by law enforcement agencies. He is the admitted source of most of the alleged payments to Carona and agreed to cooperate after striking a deal that spared him serious criminal charges.

Haidl told authorities that, with Carona's knowledge, he secretly reimbursed donors to Carona's 1998 campaign -- a scheme that allowed him to exceed Orange County laws that limited contributions to $1,000 per individual.

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