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Probation report urges 6 years in prison for Carona

The former Orange County sheriff was acquitted on most charges but convicted of witness tampering. The report is advisory only. A hearing on his request for a retrial or dismissal is set for Monday.

March 25, 2009|Christine Hanley

If a judge takes the lead from probation officers, former Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona could face 6 1/2 years in prison for leaning on his assistant to lie to a grand jury that was investigating the administration of the state's second-largest sheriff's agency.

A probation report, which recommends that the man once dubbed "America's sheriff" serve 78 months in federal prison for witness tampering, was issued last week and was immediately sealed. But the recommendation was disclosed Tuesday in a footnote to a motion filed by federal prosecutors.

The proposed prison term comes as a sobering contrast to the conclusion of a corruption trial that ended with Carona's acquittal on all but one of the felony charges he faced. Although the probation report is merely advisory, federal judges tend to give "great weight" to such reports, said John Hueston, a former federal prosecutor and now a defense attorney who specializes in white-collar crime.

Brian A. Sun, one of Carona's attorneys, declined to comment, as did Senior Assistant U.S. Atty. Kenneth Julian, one of the ex-sheriff's prosecutors. Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Los Angeles, said a formal position paper on the sentencing is being written by prosecutors.

The charge carries a maximum 20-year term, though experts at the time of the conviction suggested that Carona would probably receive no more than 41 months in prison.

The highest-ranking law officer to be prosecuted in Orange County, Carona was acquitted in January of five felony charges related to broad allegations that he misused the powers of his office in a furious scramble for cash and gifts for himself and others, including his wife and a longtime mistress.

However, he was convicted of felony witness tampering, a charge that stemmed from his attempts to have former Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl lie to a grand jury that was investigating corruption in the sheriff's administration. Working with federal prosecutors, Haidl secretly recorded conversations with Carona in the summer of 2007 at a Newport Beach restaurant and outside a concert venue in Costa Mesa.

Carona called the acquittals an "absolute miracle" and said he felt "beyond vindicated" by the jury's decision.

Still, jurors said that they believed Carona had illegally accepted cash and gifts but that they were hindered by a statute of limitations that prevented them from considering the majority of the alleged transgressions.

"His hand was in the cookie jar," said one juror, an Anaheim truck driver. "He was just quick enough to wipe the crumbs off his hands."

Deborah Carona and the former sheriff's paramour Debra Hoffman were also charged in the case, adding heightened drama to the months leading up to the trial when all three sat together at the defendant's table. But prosecutors later dropped charges against both women.

Carona, who is scheduled to be sentenced April 27, has asked the court to toss out his conviction or grant him a new trial on the witness tampering count. A hearing on his request is scheduled for Monday.

Carona was dubbed "America's sheriff" by CNN's Larry King after he led a high-profile manhunt for the killer of Samantha Runnion, a 5-year-old girl who was kidnapped while playing with a friend outside her home in Stanton. Soon, he was mentioned as being of such solid political timber that Sacramento or even Washington, D.C., might be within his reach.

But as the investigation into his administration tightened, his inner circle began collapsing and one of his assistants ended up serving a jail sentence for perjury. Another assistant, Haidl, became his chief accuser.

Carona was indicted in 2007, a year after his election to a third term. He resigned last year. --

christine.hanley@latimes.com

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