DOJ sources told me several other assistant U.S. attorneys not assigned to the sheriff's probe could have handled the white supremacists.

Though hampered, Sagel worked in his spare time—nights, weekends and holidays—on the Carona investigation, according to sources familiar with the case. To his credit, Sagel managed to obtain secret guilty pleas from both Haidl and Jaramillo in March 2007, during his lengthy Aryan Brotherhood trial—which lasted until August.

"That nine-month delay in 2007 absolutely jeopardized the case," a veteran federal law-enforcement official told the Weekly. "Remember, the clock was ticking—a five-year statute-of-limitations clock for crimes committed in 2002. Carona might have escaped if Brett hadn't gotten a Haidl confession in his spare time."

But Gross hadn't made his last cameo in the Carona saga. Multiple sources insist there is evidence that while Sagel spent his days tied down with the Aryan Brotherhood trial, Gross solicited a personal favor from Carona, asking the sheriff to call Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Carona pal, and see if he could win Gross a governor's appointment to the superior court.

No one interviewed for this story believed Gross' request for Carona's help was a quid pro quo involving the criminal probe.

Thom Mrozek, spokesman for the DOJ in LA, would not confirm the evidence, or say if ethics rules permit the head of a DOJ branch to seek favors from a known criminal target.

Confronted with the allegation that he'd contacted Carona during his office's probe of the sheriff, Gross did not deny it. Responding to e-mailed questions, he initially wrote that it would be "inappropriate" to address the subject. Later, Gross suggested he might file a lawsuit if this story were published. The next day, Feb. 20, he softened. He wrote in an e-mail, "Given my immediate and proper recusal from the investigation at issue, the record is clear that my interactions with the sheriff were entirely proper."

But why had Gross given Sagel an assignment that took him away from the Carona investigation? "Regarding case assignments, your question was asked in the context of a theory that, however farfetched, might be raised at the upcoming trial," Gross told me. "I therefore don't feel that it's appropriate for me to talk about that issue or similar issues, on or off the record. I realize that this means that others may speculate about case assignments and other such things. But the record is clear that, during my tenure, the Orange County U.S. attorney's office had very few resources, yet was responsible for successfully investigating and prosecuting some of the largest and most complex cases in the country."

It's unclear how—or if—officials confronted Gross about his alleged Carona-lobbying. But Gross had other problems. On Oct. 19, 2007, Huntington Beach police arrested him for "driving under the influence of alcohol/drugs," according to superior-court records. Gross hired Schroeder pal Allan Stokke, a defense lawyer, and got three years' probation, a $390 fine and sessions with Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

One other question we had for Gross: Was he forced out of his job? After all, on Oct. 29—the day before government officials revealed their felony-loaded bribery indictment against the sheriff, his wife and top mistress—they announced Gross' departure for him.

According to Gross, the timing was a coincidence—an assertion that many DOJ staffers believe. Gross wrote, "My transition to the private sector was in the works for months prior to my departure."

rscottmoxley@ocweekly.com

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