'Dirty, Stupid or Both'

Never mind the photo: Sheriff Carona denies Mafia ties

Pictures speak volumes, and they can raise questions—like what the hell was Sheriff Mike Carona thinking when he posed for a photo with Rick Rizzolo, a man the FBI calls a mob associate?

That's Rizzolo—shirt untucked, gold bracelet and pinky ring, cocktail, smile—with his arm draped around Orange County's top cop. Rizzolo is a wealthy man, a Las Vegas strip club owner with unusual access to Nevada politicians, Hollywood celebrities, and colorful criminals who've been featured in mob books and movies. Even by that standard, his time with Carona, who hails himself as "America's sheriff," must have seemed surreal. It's not often, if ever, that a big-shot California cop will openly party with a well-known underworld figure.

Organized-crime agents say the two men posed for the shot at Newport Beach's posh Ritz restaurant sometime between 2002 and 2004. They declined to be more specific about the date. But they will say the two men drank, chatted and shared laughs at the Ritz, exchanged warm embraces, and, as absurd as it seems, posed for photographs, including this one obtained by the Weekly, providing a record of the odd meeting.

Mob associate and Vegas strip club boss Rick Rizzolo (left) with Sheriff Mike Carona. OC Weekly photo
Mob associate and Vegas strip club boss Rick Rizzolo (left) with Sheriff Mike Carona. OC Weekly photo
Carona (center) gave official badges, bottles of wine and a cake to campaign contributors Freddie Glusman (left) and casino owner Gary Primm. OC Weekly photo
Carona (center) gave official badges, bottles of wine and a cake to campaign contributors Freddie Glusman (left) and casino owner Gary Primm. OC Weekly photo

Investigators have tied Rizzolo to Chicago and New York mob families. The Las Vegas Review Journal reports that he's the target of an ongoing corruption probe. A federal indictment describes his topless joint as a "racketeering enterprise." The club's general manager, Albert Rapuano, can't get a gaming license because of his own mob ties. Rizzolo has employed as bouncers the sons and brothers of high-ranking Mafia bosses. He cracked a man's skull with a baseball bat to resolve a 1985 dispute. In 1999, FBI surveillance caught him in Chicago discussing gambling and construction interests with notorious hit man Joey "The Clown" Lombardo as well as John "No Nose" DiFronzo, Joe "The Builder" Andriacchi, Rudy Fratto and William Messino, a convicted felon and loan shark.

You might expect that Carona, who has his own organized-crime unit and is seeking re-election in June despite a series of corruption scandals, would stay far from trouble. He heads California's second-largest sheriff's department, once served as the chairman of a state crime commission and has the ear of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. He's a senior adviser on national security issues to President George W. Bush.

Last spring, Rizzolo—who owns a 3,700-square-foot oceanfront estate in Newport Beach—attended Carona's 50th birthday party and was among the first to contribute to the sheriff's re-election campaign. When The Orange County Register's Tony Saavedra disclosed in November 2005 that the sheriff had accepted Rizzolo's $1,500, Carona's media consultants acknowledged that the men had met "two or three times." Two weeks ago, they told the Weekly that there might have been meetings but insisted that the sheriff was clueless about Rizzolo's occupation and mob ties.

If that assertion raised eyebrows in Carona's own department, it enraged anti-mob cops.

"It's disgusting," one high-level officer said of the Rizzolo-Carona relationship. "It's a slap in the face to law enforcement. What is Sheriff Carona thinking? He's either incredibly stupid or dirty as hell. Or both."

Carona's job comes with a $550 million annual budget, 1,800 deputies and access to secret organized-crime databases. If he's really unaware of the activities of La Cosa Nostra (LCN) in Orange County, state investigators aren't. According to a 2003 report, LCN and its associates are responsible for a "broad spectrum" of crimes in Southern California: murder, drug trafficking, gambling, labor racketeering, extortion, infiltration of legitimate businesses, loan sharking, pornography, prostitution, tax fraud and financial market manipulations. The report notes that this region "has always been an attractive location for traditional organized crime families" because of its proximity to Las Vegas. It also claims LA, San Diego and Orange counties are "open" territories where no single mafia family dominates.

Organized-crime cops here won't publicly discuss Rizzolo's activities, and Sheriff Carona did not respond to questions. But numerous sources in and outside the sheriff's department say the men were introduced by Freddie Glusman, owner of the Ritz restaurant in Newport Beach since May 2002. Glusman, a Carona campaign contributor, also owns upscale Piero's Italian Restaurant in Las Vegas.

Glusman doesn't hide the fact that Piero's is a mob hangout. In advertising, Glusman brags that his patrons include "businessmen in the casino industry with Italian surnames" or "local color guys." He boasts that these men like his restaurant for "confidential encounters." Years ago, he installed a private wine cabinet for Rizzolo. Joey Cusumano—a former Laguna Beach resident, Rizzolo pal and alleged mob associate who is banned for life from the Nevada gaming industry—is also a regular at Piero's, according to published reports in Las Vegas.

"No one gets bothered in my restaurant," Glusman says in an ad. "I don't care who the celebrity is or what they have done. I see to it that they are allowed to dine in peace and quiet. No exceptions!" But last year, even Glusman couldn't deliver on the promise: the FBI arrested two retired New York City police officers, Louis Eppolito and Stephen Caracappa, while dining at Piero's. Earlier this month, a federal jury convicted the ex-cops of secretly moonlighting for East Coast organized-crime outfits for more than a decade while carrying badges. Eppolito and Caracappa were involved in at least 11 attempted or successful mob-ordered hits, according to federal prosecutors.

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