Department of Homeland Stupidity

Master of Disasters Mike Carona breached secret anti-terrorism plans


Above Irvine Lake, somewhere near the intersection of the 241 and 261 toll roads, two miles after an unmarked entrance at the base of Loma Ridge, over a bridge, up a narrow winding road with two blind turns, and beyond two electronic gates and "no public access" signs, surveillance cameras and armed guards, is Orange County's Emergency Operations Center (EOC).

It's a secret, windowless facility of maybe 50,000 or 60,000 or 70,000 square feet, plus an adjacent field and helipad. It's difficult to get a precise description because the EOC is closed to the public and media—and with good reason: in the event of war, terrorist attack, natural disaster or radiation leak at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, EOS will serve as the government's crisis headquarters. Officials will say the EOS hosts top-secret training events involving dozens of agencies, including the FBI, sheriff's departments and FEMA.

As far as the public knows, county officials have mastered their disaster responsibilities; following 9/11, Sheriff Mike Carona told the Los Angeles Times that his oversight of EOC would provide "an extra degree of vigilance." Jon Fleischman, his spokesman, told an Orange County Register reporter last year, "Orange Countians should be reassured by the fact that the players who would be involved in disaster response in this county are all seasoned." Carona is also a Homeland Security adviser to President Bush and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Carona with wife and Cavallo
Carona with wife and Cavallo

But an Orange County Sheriff's Department document obtained by the Weekly shows that Carona breached his own security protocols at Loma Ridge.

A Sept. 15, 2003, Sheriff's Department memo marked "Urgent" and "High Importance" indicates Carona gave alleged con artist Joseph M. Medawar—a B-flick Hollywood executive and Lebanon native with close ties to Saudi Arabia—permission to film the secret facility as well as that year's Sept. 17 anti-terrorist response practice.

The memo, e-mailed from the account of Elaine Vasquez, the sheriff's executive assistant, was directed to the office of then-Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo. It states that Carona had "pre-approved" three of Medawar's camera crews "to videotape the whole thing." The memo directs Jaramillo to work on the project with Medawar and Hollywood fund-raiser Arthur Kassel.

Sources say Sheriff's Captain Cathy Zurn, who is in charge at Loma Ridge, was outraged by the request but eventually followed orders. Zurn did not respond to calls for an interview.

In media interviews, Medawar (a.k.a. "JoJo," according to the FBI) has claimed he was producing a television series he hoped to call DHS, based on the Department of Homeland Security. Medawar said DHS would celebrate federal agents and President Bush.

But on Sept. 23, 2005, FBI agents arrested the 43-year-old Rolling Hills Estates resident. In their indictment, a federal grand jury claimed DHSwas a scam intended "to defraud." Medawar faces 34 counts of mail fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice.

Federal officials say Medawar used film footage, including film Carona green-lighted at Loma Ridge, to convince potential investors he was well-connected to top law-enforcement officials. Two of Medawar's associates have already pleaded guilty to operating a con game that stole more than $5.5 million from 70 individuals. He used the money to rent a $40,000-per-month Beverly Hills mansion and buy several luxury automobiles, according to the indictment.

In October 2005, Los Angeles Times reporters Christine Hanley and Greg Krikorian first disclosed that Carona had allowed Medawar to film scenes inside the sheriff's headquarters for a "promotional trailer" he used to dupe investors. The paper noted that Medawar had paid Huntington Beach Congressman Dana Rohrabacher $23,000 for an old script. Rohrabacher, a pal of convicted Washington, D.C., lobbyist Jack Abramoff, insists the payment was unrelated to calls he made to gain Medawar access to federal law-enforcement agencies. Rohrabacher also introduced Medawar to Newport Beach Congressman Christopher Cox, who at the time served as chairman of the House Homeland Security committee. Cox is now head of the Securities and Exchange Commission. According to the Times, Cox introduced Medawar to terrorism experts.

Carona's critics wonder how the Loma Ridge scam could unfold in Carona's own office without raising suspicion. They point out the sheriff ought to have known—or been able to discover—something about Medawar's well-documented history of disputes over money and connections to colorful people. Among his several film credits (Stephen King's Sleepwalkers and the soft-core Hardbodies 2), Medawar co-produced the 1988 horror flick Slaughterhouse Rock with partner Nick Celozzi Sr. Celozzi is a Chicago car dealer whose son and a Teamsters official were caught in an FBI sting; Celozzi's onetime Las Vegas partner was convicted of fraud last year in federal court. In the 1990s, Medawar and Nabeel Zahid owned Ion Pictures, a company funded by Saudi interests.

That none of this struck the sheriff as unusual is a testament to Medawar's peculiar skill, his sleight-of-hand deployment of borrowed cash, leased cars and buildings, Hollywood name-dropping, and political contacts. At least that's what the feds say, and it might explain how Medawar persuaded Carona to abandon his professed vigilance and stand in front of Medawar's camera crews during an official anti-terror training at the EOC in September 2003.

But Medawar was helped along by Carona's willful ignorance of the people who surround him. His ex-Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl has his own checkered business history and is the father of convicted gang rapist Greg Haidl. Jaramillo, his No. 2 officer, faces bribery and perjury charges. Defense lawyer Joe Cavallo, Carona's longtime drinking buddy, has been indicted in a bail-bond scheme that operated in Carona's Orange County Jail. Liquor-store owner Jack Henshaw, a major donor to Carona's private charity, was fined $200,000 for attempting to bribe a federal official. Charles Gabbard, the largest individual contributor to Carona's 2002 re-election campaign, is a convicted felon.

The list goes on: two weeks ago, the Weekly published a photo of the sheriff warmly embracing Rick Rizzolo, a mob associate and Las Vegas strip-club owner who is the target of a federal grand jury. The sheriff's advisers said Carona was clueless about Rizzolo's identity, though they met "two or three times."

Late last year, photos surfaced of a Russian woman wearing the sheriff's official uniform inside his Moscow hotel room. Another shot shows Carona affectionately cradling the same woman. The sheriff refuses media interviews about the pictures but had a lawyer claim the woman was merely his interpreter. At least three other women have made sex allegations against the sheriff, who is married with a teenage son. The attorney general's office is conducting an investigation into Carona's alleged sexual misdeeds. The sheriff wants voters to give him a third term on June 6.

rscottmoxley@ocweekly.com

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