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Carona trial to pick up with closing statements

Jurors in the case for the former Orange County sheriff are expected to hear excerpts of recordings that prosecutors say capture Carona plotting to cover up gifts from businessman Don Haidl.

January 06, 2009|Christine Hanley

Before they were interrupted by an extended holiday recess, jurors in the federal corruption trial of "America's sheriff" had listened to hours of testimony and undercover tapes that prosecutors said chronicled the alleged bawdy behavior, bribes and blatant greed that framed the indictment of Michael S. Carona.

Today, the panel of 11 men and one woman returns after two weeks off to hear closing statements as prosecutors and defense attorneys attempt to put their final spins on a case against Orange County's ex-sheriff that, by most accounts, lived up to its sensational billing.

Prosecutors are expected to play excerpts of the secretly recorded conversations that they say capture Carona plotting to cover up a trail of cash payments and other gifts from Newport Beach businessman Don Haidl, a former assistant sheriff who was the government's chief informant and central witness.

Certain segments of the obscenity-laced tapes could possibly be played for jurors by defense attorneys, who have argued Carona exonerates himself during portions of the recordings and who were not afraid to play hours of the tapes during the trial.

Carona is the highest-ranking law enforcement official to be prosecuted in Orange County. He is accused of conspiring with others to trade the powers of his office for more than $700,000 in cash and gifts. His wife, Deborah, and a longtime mistress, Debra Hoffman, are scheduled to stand trial together next month.

Tales of infidelity, lewd behavior, cash handoffs and broken friendships were in no short order as prosecutors laid out their case against Carona. Before he was indicted last year, Carona was roundly viewed as a rising political star, a lawman who'd come to be known as "America's sheriff," a nickname given to him by CNN's Larry King after he led the manhunt for a little girl's killer.

The clear star of the two-month trial was Haidl, who had cooperated with prosecutors for nearly two years as they built their case against the sheriff. As part of a plea agreement on separate tax charges, Haidl, a former car auctioneer, went undercover and recorded three conversations with Carona, delivering hours of tapes that are considered central evidence in the case.

In the witness box for 10 days, Haidl told jurors that he laundered at least $30,000 into Carona's first campaign in 1998, bribed him with $1,000 monthly cash payments, paid for vacations and tailored suits, gave him a boat and allowed him unlimited use of his own private yacht and planes. He said he also gave Hoffman $65,000 at Carona's request, lent her money and helped her lease a Mercedes.

What he got in return, Haidl testified, was a virtual get-out-of-jail-free card and the full power of the Sheriff's Department. He said that with Carona's blessing, he appointed relatives, friends and associates as reserve deputies who carried official badges. Haidl also testified that Carona made sure his son got preferential treatment in a drug case and exerted his influence -- though unsuccessfully -- to have the teenager tried as a juvenile in a sexual assault case.

Defense attorneys Brian A. Sun and Jeff Rawitz, white-collar crime specialists, represented Carona free of charge. They struggled to line up witnesses, some of whom they acknowledged were reluctant to appear at the high-profile trial. Ultimately, 25 testified, including philanthropist David Gelbaum and Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas. But no one directly contradicted Haidl's accusations.

Sun and Rawitz focused on attacking Haidl's credibility and motivations. Among other things, they tried to show that Haidl was upset because Carona didn't help his son in a high-profile sexual assault case. Greg Haidl ended up being tried as an adult, convicted and sentenced to six years in prison.

The defense also tried to show that Haidl was motivated by his hope for leniency in his own tax case, that he actually never got any favors from Carona, and that the money and other items Haidl gave to Carona were gifts between close friends.

Another former assistant sheriff, George Jaramillo, was portrayed by the defense as the villain in the case. Jaramillo was fired by Carona in 2004 and later prosecuted in an unrelated case for perjury and misusing a county helicopter. The defense tried to show that Jaramillo had been seeking revenge against his former boss since he was dismissed.

Jaramillo reached a plea agreement in 2007 with federal prosecutors and is the source of many of the allegations against Carona. But in what were probably the biggest letdowns among trial watchers, Jaramillo did not testify for the government and was not called by the defense.

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christine.hanley@latimes.com

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