Former Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona, shown arriving in court in… (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles…)
Orange County's former sheriff is waging a battle to be released from federal prison, where he is serving time for witness tampering in a corruption case that exposed wrongdoing in the state's second-largest sheriff's department.
On Monday, a federal judge heard arguments on whether to resentence Michael S. Carona, once a rising political star before he was indicted in late 2007 in a sprawling corruption case.
Carona's attorneys argued that the 66-month sentence handed down by U.S. District Judge Andrew Guilford on the one witness-tampering charge on which he was convicted should be adjusted based on changes in the law. About one year after Carona's sentencing, the Supreme Court narrowed a definition of corruption to just bribes and kickbacks.
His attorneys contend that Carona's conduct amounted to simply not disclosing gifts but did not amount to bribery.
Carona's conviction was based in part on testimony from the government's star witness — former Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl — who secretly recorded a conversation in which Carona asked him to lie to a grand jury investigating suspected wrongdoing in the department.
Though Carona was convicted on one witness-tampering charge, he was acquitted on another and was also acquitted on charges of conspiracy and mail fraud.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Brett Sagel said that Carona's sentence was appropriate and supported by the evidence in the case.
"This was an obstruction of justice case," Sagel said. "The sitting sheriff of Orange County was trying to convince someone to lie."
Sagel pointed to numerous examples of bribes, including Haidl's testimony that he paid Carona $1,000 each month from September 1998 to July 2002. Haidl also said he gave Carona a Sea Ray boat and provided Carona's girlfriend with about $65,000 in payments. All of the gifts were in exchange for access to the Sheriff's Department.
Sagel also said Carona should have brought up the sentencing issue during his appeal, which was denied more than two years ago.
Carona began serving a 51/2-year sentence at a federal prison in Colorado in January 2011. His attorneys are asking that he be resentenced to 24 to 30 months — which could result in the former sheriff being freed.
"Mr. Carona is a somewhat different man than he was years ago," his attorney, John Cline, said while Carona's family, including his wife and son, sat in the front row of the courtroom.
Guilford said he would be ruling on the case soon.