In case you tuned out last year: Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona has a promiscuity problem. He's been accused of extramarital affairs and sexual harassment and, in an eyebrow-raising confession to a fellow cop, admitted to voyeurism: watching his onetime second-in-command, George Jaramillo, have sex with his own sister-in-law, Erica Hill. Later, Hill claimed the sheriff had promised to employ her husband as a deputy if she slept with him. After four romps and no hire, Hill said she ended the tryst. Another married woman claimed Carona repeatedly called her at home and invited her to San Francisco.
While much of Carona's alleged behavior is hardly illegal, some of it has been serious enough to warrant a lawsuit by Hill, numerous unflattering media exposs and an investigation by the California attorney general.
But after a year of blows to his credibility, the county's top cop finally proved in December that he can think with his head. This would not be news, except that Carona, 50, is now using the shiny, bald one resting on his shoulders. That anatomical transition—long in coming, if several annoyed women are right—won't cost him a cent.
You, however, should grab your wallet. Despite scarce resources, local taxpayers will soon spend hundreds of thousands of dollars—perhaps a million bucks or more—to help wipe up the sheriff's sex mess.
Oops, my apologies to Carona. He's up for re-election in June. And, according to a memo obtained by the Weekly, details of his controversial spending plan were supposed to remain a secret until December 2006, after he'd won a third term.
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Orange County government, manufacturers in 1994 of the world's largest municipal bankruptcy thanks to a potent mix of corruption, greed and ineptitude, has always been a cesspool of secrets. Here, bureaucrats routinely take it upon themselves to withhold information from citizens. Don't be surprised if, when asking a government employee for a public document, you find a clerk who'll demand that you tell her why you want to see it.
"Why?" can be an appropriate question, especially when the sheriff wants to divert a large sum of public money from identifying, capturing and housing crooks.
On Dec. 6, Carona directed county counsel Benjamin de Mayo to ask the Board of Supervisors to award the law firm of Jones and Mayer a no-bid, $100,000-plus contract. The funds will come from Proposition 172 accounts earmarked for law enforcement. According to de Mayo, the private law firm is needed to handle "issues relating to peace officer personnel matters."
Note the lack of specificity.
Normally, county agencies use the 60 lawyers collecting paychecks in the county counsel's office for legal tasks, including highly sensitive matters involving the sheriff. Also know that it often takes an act of God for a bureaucrat, like de Mayo, to ask for outside legal assistance—it's tantamount to saying he's not equipped to handle the situation. But Carona's alleged infidelity has created a special circumstance and thus, as de Mayo delicately told the supervisors, there's now a need for "a particular expertise" from outside counsel.
To get the deal approved, Carona made a rare appearance before the supervisors. He was there, he noted, for "a quick presentation." The sheriff then said what the spending would not be used for: legal woes he'd earned by giving official badges to 86 individuals who skirted thorough background checks and proper training.
Customarily, the sheriff's strong suit has been his uncanny ability to charm critics. But on this day the magic was gone. Carona looked noticeably irked. In fact, he digressed into a rant, unrelated (by his own admission) to the plea for money.
"Ms. Hanley lied," barked the sheriff, not bothering to identify her first name (Christine), her employer (the Los Angeles Times) or the reason for his irritation (her bombshell stories detailing reserve division corruption under Carona's leadership).
After offering a version of reality (he's done nothing wrong) at odds with the official conclusions of state investigators who oversee reserve deputy programs, Carona gripped the podium, forced a smile and tried to justify the hiring of outside counsel. He pretended his request was routine, boring, even—though his presence and demeanor proved something extraordinary was under way.
"This is yet to bring another expert onboard to supplement county counsel and his staff in dealing with personnel issues around the sheriff's department," he said.
What issues, sheriff?
Knowing that he'd already briefed each of the supervisors individually in private, Carona disingenuously invited in-depth questions and then sat down, seemingly confident none would be forthcoming in the public setting.
But Supervisor Chris Norby, perhaps the most independent member of the board, didn't play along. Norby asked county counsel if the request meant that his "current staff is adequate or not?" The question led to an awkward exchange, with de Mayo answering, "Uh, adequate? Uh . . ."
Norby: My question is if it is [adequate], then . . .
De Mayo: Then why . . .
Then why do we need this extra counsel?
Right. And, uh, again, this is, um, a contract to bring Mr. Mayer on, who is . . .
Yeah, I know that. I'm just asking you why?
Right. (Pause.) The reason that we're bringing on Mr. Mayer is, as the sheriff said, to supplement, uh, the advice we can provide the sheriff on personnel issues.
Acid must have bubbled in Carona's stomach. The last thing he wanted was for the contract to be tied to his sex problem. Brutal headlines might follow. He'd always pitched himself as a fiscal conservative; anti-government-waste folks might brand him a hypocrite.
But to the sheriff's relief, Norby prematurely abandoned his line of questioning. He said he'd "reluctantly support" the agenda item. The other three present supervisors—Bill Campbell, Tom Wilson and Lou Correa—quickly voted yes as well and then turned their attention to microfiche conversion services.
The following day, The Orange County Register and the Times reported the board's decision. But they didn't tell their readers the real reason for the spending. Or that the $100,000 price tag is a fraud.
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Last summer, the sheriff—a self-styled Christian conservative—acted carefree in public about the sex stories. During television interviews, for example, he and his aides implied that his female accusers were lunatics. In private, however, Carona panicked. He eventually threatened retaliation against anyone who makes new allegations.
(It's worth noting here that Carona presides over a $500-million-a-year agency, several thousand employees and a hefty intelligence apparatus, and serves as adviser to President George W. Bush on homeland security issues.)
The sheriff's threat was made in an unambiguous voice-mail message left for defense attorney Joseph G. Cavallo, a 26-year drinking buddy, who faces criminal charges in an alleged jailhouse bail bonds scheme. Cavallo—famous for his spirited defense of gang rapist Greg Haidl, son of Carona pal Don Haidl—represents Jaramillo. Prosecutors have charged Jaramillo with bribery for his involvement with a convicted felon he met through the sheriff.
The point is that the sheriff believes his threat, exposed by the Weekly in October (see "Sex, Bribes and Jailhouse Scams," Oct. 14), might not adequately discourage other women from talking. Thoughts of the potential damaging revelations of one woman in particular have, according to sources close to the sheriff, motivated Carona to consider dropping out of the race.
The sheriff—seen as invincible before the sex reports and a long series of revelations about mismanagement and corruption—faces a likely ugly re-election battle against San Clemente Police Chief Bill Hunt, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Commander Ralph Martin and retired LA deputy Robert Alcaraz. But Carona doesn't want to spend personal or campaign funds on his legal troubles with women. Hence, the need to hire Jones and Mayer. It'll be the law firm's taxpayer-funded job to oversee private detectives who will dig up dirt on the female accusers and try to encourage their retreat.
How do we know this? Let's examine the terms of the contract the board approved. The loopholes—none of which were mentioned during the public discussion—are revealing.
De Mayo repeatedly told the supervisors that the total cost to taxpayers would be capped at $100,000 for the next year, but that's outright deceitful. A copy of the deal obtained by the Weeklyshows Jones and Mayer can circumvent public scrutiny and board approval for spending above the cap by hiring additional "consultants" for Carona. The fine print, written by de Mayo himself, allows de Mayo to personally approve an unlimited number of consultants—attorneys and private investigators—at up to $150,000 per person.
In other words, if Jones and Mayer hires just four additional consultants, the price tag could jump to more than $700,000.
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It gets worse.
Devised over several months by de Mayo and Carona, the contract has another loophole: taxpayer-funded expenses. Does the sheriff have women in eight California counties? The consultants secured pre-approval for all travel expenses for Orange, Los Angeles, Riverside, Imperial, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Ventura and Kern counties.
What all this suggests is that Carona, the county counsel and the Board of Supervisors believe there is merit to the sex claims. Why else would they go to such lengths to mask the real deal with Jones and Mayer? Why else would they write a blank check for Carona's defense?