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Audiotapes will be pivotal for Carona

October 30, 2008|DANA PARSONS

Roll tape.

The Mike Carona trial that opened with an R-rated flourish Wednesday will no doubt leave us with some memorably scandalous moments. Just hearing the opposing attorneys in their opening statements identify the cast of characters ("bag man, hatchet man, bad guy" was one description of a potential witness) suggests there'll be name-calling ahead.

But if everybody just wants to get to the heart of the corruption case against the former Orange County sheriff as quickly as possible, let's just roll tape.

Not videotape, but the audiotapes of Carona and his former pal and Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl, secretly recorded in July and August 2007 and arguably the linchpin of the government's case.

Conjuring images in my brain of the Watergate tapes that brought down Richard Nixon's presidency, the recorded conversations reveal Carona's guilty deeds, according to Assistant U.S. Atty. Brett Sagel.

Carona's defense team, however, says the tapes need to be considered in a larger context and, in essence, reflect the government's overreaching to pin a corruption rap on Carona. The only dishonest people in this case, defense attorney Brian Sun said, are some of the government's witnesses.

In a case likely to have some murky elements, how the jury of 11 men and one woman interprets the tapes may well determine whether Carona ends up in prison or walks out a free man. Elected in 1998, Carona was reelected twice but resigned earlier this year to concentrate on his defense.

Trials are always dramas, and attorneys Wednesday didn't even try to avoid the analogy in their opening statements. Sagel portrayed the trial as "the case of the two Mike Caronas," one the charmer and the other a politician who began his elective career with his hand out.

"We're going to be rich, we're going to make so much money," he quoted Carona as saying early on in his tenure.

Nice story, except that Carona didn't get rich, according to Sun. He said Carona has lived in the same house for 15 years and still drives basically the same kind of vehicle, an SUV, that he has for years.

Sun minimized some of the "gifts" itemized in the government's case, such as prizefight tickets and World Series luxury box seats. He said it was Carona, not Haidl, who paid for a Carona family trip to Lake Tahoe. He described a boat Haidl allegedly gave to Carona as little more than a hand-me-down requiring maintenance.

Sun likened the government's case to the worst kind of negative campaign ad, in which the target -- Carona -- is unfairly portrayed through misleading statements and left with a shattered reputation.

Referring to one of the government's allegations -- that Carona, his wife and mistress were part of a conspiracy to enrich themselves -- Sun obliquely noted that such a threesome is an unlikely blending of conspirators.

There's a lot here for jurors to chew on.

Did I use the word murky?

How about the potential problem with the main government witnesses? The key ones, Sun says, are white-collar felons cooperating with the government to secure lighter sentences.

That could trouble some jurors. Conversely, they might be troubled by the fact that Carona befriended each and hand-picked two of them to help him run the Sheriff's Department.

Sagel depicted Carona as the top dog in a tight circle that ate out of Haidl's wallet. The government's indictment alleges that, among other things, Carona accepted $48,000 in monthly cash payments over a four-year period beginning in 1998. Sun said there's no proof such transactions ever happened.

It's not hard to see how the "credibility" of Carona's accusers might keep jurors going round and round.

Which, in a neatly circuitous way, will eventually lead them to the audiotapes. At some point in the days or weeks ahead, jurors will hear or read the exchanges between Haidl and Carona and decide if the two were willing conspirators.

Two men talking in unguarded moments shouldn't involve as much guesswork as invisible paper trails or debatable credibilities.

If and when jurors reach agreement on what the tapes do or don't reveal, Carona will learn his fate.

--

dana.parsons@latimes.com

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