"We got places all over the place."
—Mobster "Nice Guy" Eddie,Reservoir Dogs
Few cops have enjoyed a career like Mike Carona's—a roller coaster, all downhill. When he took over the Orange County Sheriff's Department in 1999, he promised a squeaky-clean operation. He'd never worked a day as a cop but campaigned as a new breed of manager. He even showed a common man's touch, promising he'd serve just two terms, no more, and then get back to his life.
So when Carona decided to renege on his promise last April, he found reliable Orange County Register columnist Frank Mickadeit. Through Mickadeit, the sheriff announced he loves his job, wants a third term and has few, if any, worries. There is "nothing more pressing on [Carona's] agenda than getting to his son's soccer game and the Jimmy Buffett concert at the Pond," Mickadeit wrote.
See, Carona is just like you and me, only he's got lousy taste in music and he's running the nation's fifth-largest sheriff's department. Never mind that the OCSD is plagued by charges that Carona engaged in numerous extramarital affairs with women, including county employees; that his highest-ranking officers participated in sex parties and solicited prostitutes; that his longtime No. 1 deputy faces bribery charges; that his friend of 26 years, a defense lawyer, operated a jailhouse bail bond scheme; that he permitted the sharing of pornographic material with office staff; solicited or accepted illegal contributions; offered his mistresses helicopter rides at public expense; established a questionable cop charity; promised free inmate labor in exchange for large donations; and charged taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars for his private, crisis-management attorneys. In 2004, the FBI raided the sheriff's office, hauling away boxes of records.
So maybe it's no surprise that the self-styled Christian conservative sheriff has lately become pals with the owner of the Crazy Horse Too strip club in Las Vegas, Rick Rizzolo, a convicted felon the FBI says is a suspect in an agency mob investigation.
When Carona announced re-election plans, Rizzolo was one of the first to contribute. He gave $1,500 in May 2005. Questioned by another publication, Mike Schroeder, the sheriff's political strategist, insisted Carona was clueless about Rizzolo's history. But Schroeder did acknowledge the sheriff and the mob associate had met "two or three times."
In a subsequent interview with the Weekly, Schroeder retreated. "I really don't recall the details," he said. "But I'm sure I said that they may have [his emphasis] met several times. I'll have to ask the sheriff to be more specific." We never heard back from Schroeder.
It's hard to believe that Carona—who runs a $500 million-per-year law-enforcement agency with access to almost every international, federal, state and local crime database—couldn't learn in a year what I learned about Rizzolo during a lunch break cruising the Internet.
Rizzolo's strip club is not just a "racketeering enterprise," as a pending federal indictment claims, but allegedly features the added charms of prostitution, extortion and horrific violence. There are reports that customers have been tortured if they don't sign wildly inflated credit card bills after a night of T&A. The website SteveMiller4lasvegas.com/RickRizzolo.html displays what it alleges are photos of bloody, injured and unconscious patrons lying on the street outside the club. In 1985, Rizzolo used a baseball bat to crack a customer's skull.
According to John L. Smith, a mob expert at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Rizzolo's staff has included Vinny Faraci, son of Bonanno crime family capo Johnny Faraci, as well as Rocco Lombardo, the brother of Joey "The Clown" Lombardo. There's nothing funny about "The Clown," an alleged hit man turned Chicago mob boss thanks largely to unnatural attrition. The feds say Lombardo helped execute legendary gangster Tony "The Ant" Spilotro in 1986. You may recall Spilotro's badass character, played by Joe Pesci, in Casino and his grotesque death in an Indiana cornfield.
Smith documented the cozy relationship between Rizzolo, 47, and numerous mobsters like Lombardo, Joey Cusumano, John "No Nose" DiFronzo, Joe "The Builder" Andriacchi, Fred Pascente and the late Joe Blasko, a cop turned mobster. Last July, the columnist used the testimony of an FBI organized crime agent to place Rizzolo at a Chicago dining table with Lombardo in May 1999. According to the agent, the men discussed ways to further infiltrate gambling enterprises.
A year ago—coincidentally, just days after the FBI tied Lombardo to 18 grisly murders—Rizzolo made his contribution to Sheriff Carona, who is, thanks to GOP connections more than any skill and certainly despite his indiscretions, a Homeland Security adviser to President George W. Bush and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Law-enforcement sources are troubled. Rizzolo can pick up the phone and "get Carona any time," a source said. "The two men have joked about the mob."
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There may be an innocent explanation for the Carona-Rizzolo link. Perhaps they are kindred souls. Smith of the Review-Journal depicts Rizzolo as the "prince of the hug and warm greet," a description that fits Carona too.
Our sheriff long ago mastered sincere-seeming smiles, warm handshakes and flowery utterances. He is a Republican when it suits his purpose. He found a home with liberal Governor Gray Davis, raising money for him at least twice, and then effortlessly ingratiated himself with Republican Schwarzenegger when he took power.
But you have to wonder how excited folks like Rizzolo must get knowing they've found a chameleon wearing a badge.