The county's most powerful public official is the sheriff-coroner, a job that comes with 3,000 employees, a massive $388 million annual budget, thousands of high-tech weapons, helicopters, a jail and a highly secretive intelligence unit.
Nowadays, the office is held by Michael S. Carona, the county's affable former marshal. Carona was sworn into office on Jan. 4, guaranteeing his administration would never commit the ethical lapses that characterized Brad Gates' 24-year reign as sheriff. Two weeks later, the Weekly filed a request under the California Public Records Act for the names of members of the Orange County Sheriff's Advisory Council. Carona summarily denied the request.
The council is a group whose members' names are kept secret. Typically wealthy, council members contribute thousands of dollars to pay for the sheriff's wish list of otherwise unfunded high-tech crime-fighting gear.
The sheriff gets his wish list, and council members get honorary but official-looking badges and direct contact with the sheriff; under Gates, council members received special treatment, such as fast-tracked concealed-weapons permits. The Weekly wanted to know if some current members of the council with access to Carona might include people with dubious motives, even criminal backgrounds.
Flash forward to May 19, when Carona and his right-hand man, Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo, came to the Weekly's offices, in part to assuage suspicions that the Sheriff's Department is for sale to the highest bidder. We asked him again to act on his stated commitment to open, honest government by publicly releasing the identities of advisory-council members. He declined, claiming he has no pull with the private group. But not to worry, Carona said. "No one is ever going to get close enough to me to compromise me," he said. "It just won't happen."
Just four days after that conversation, evidence emerged that the sheriff-coroner's office may already be badly compromised. In one of the finest articles to ever appear in The Orange County Register, reporters Kim Christensen and Bill Rams revealed on May 23 that Carona's official inner circle includes a businessman at the center of three state fraud investigations in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
According to the Register, Donald G. Haidl has also been linked to Mexican gun-running (an accusation he has denied) and an unusually close relationship with a convicted ex-LA County sheriff's deputy (a fact he has conceded), a man who may have used his badge to thwart at least one of the official probes into Haidl's business activities. In 1992, Haidl—whose City of Industry-based company auctions government vehicles—paid $104,000 to settle a civil lawsuit alleging that he defrauded 36 public agencies, including 11 in Orange County.
Fallout from the story was immediate. In a May 24 Register follow-up, Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters claimed that in 1998, Haidl offered to raise campaign funds for Walters in his race against Corona; in exchange, Haidl allegedly wanted a high-ranking sheriff's job if Walters won. If true, such a quid pro quo would have violated local, state and federal laws.
For his part, Haidl—who has homes in Newport Beach, San Bernardino County, and Las Vegas—vigorously denies any wrongdoing and has called accusations against him "a bunch of trash from lowlifes."
Carona acknowledges he met Haidl in 1998 on the campaign trial. Already a member of the Sheriff's Advisory Council under Gates, Haidl, 48, raised for Carona an impressive amount of cash (Carona won't say how much, but he called Haidl a "top producer"). When Carona won, the controversial businessman became one of the sheriff's top five assistant sheriffs.
Carona told the Reg that "none" of the accusations against Haidl had merit. In the face of mounting media attention and an emergency meeting of the Orange County deputy sheriff's union, however, Corona agreed to conduct a "swift" investigation of Haidl and then take "appropriate action."
Appropriate action should include immediately releasing the names of all members of the Sheriff's Advisory Council, through which Haidl, while the subject of controversy, hobnobbed secretively with Brad Gates. Such candor ought to be reflexive in the county's top cop. We can't resist pointing out that tough cops in tough-cop movies have a word for people who resist a legitimate search: "guilty."
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