In the wake of his historic 2007 arrest by FBI and IRS agents, straight-faced Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona suggested he was the victim of a devious political conspiracy—“something like the grassy knoll with Kennedy.”
The ridiculous assertion, long touted by Carona’s faithful, Kool Aid-drinking allies, finally became permanently discredited on Jan. 6, when a 9th Circuit federal appeals panel upheld the righteousness of the disgraced ex-sheriff’s 2009 witness-tampering conviction.
Carona, a Republican—and, at one point, California’s rising GOP star and buddies with Arnold Schwarzenegger—was investigated, convicted and sentenced by Republican law-enforcement agents, two Republican assistant U.S. attorneys and a Republican U.S. District Court judge. The party affiliations of Carona’s three-judge federal appeals-court panel? All Republicans.
Simple translation: The man who led California’s second-largest police agency is finally going to the slammer.
We can hope that Carona, who once openly dreamed of toppling U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, has finally exhausted all the excuses for his remarkable downfall. For as much hatred as Carona has for me and my investigations into his antics prior to his indictment, when he’s sitting in his prison cell, he can only blame himself. He took the cash, the free private-jet trips, the Las Vegas casino chips, the custom-made suits and the boat. He surrounded himself with moral degenerates, even gave them real badges and full police powers. He allowed a con man from the Middle East to film top-secret Homeland Security procedures here. He accepted illegal campaign contributions. He sent the wife of an underling birthday cards that named his penis—and I quote—“The Little Sheriff.” He partied with high-ranking organized-crime associates in a Newport Beach bar. He threatened retaliation against those who criticized him. He told a businessman to pay his top mistress more than $60,000 in hush money. He ordered aircraft to fly endless, low circles over a political rival’s home.
There was more:
He had sex in a car with a government employee while his oblivious wife and son were nearby. He made and lost a $100 bet that someone couldn’t sell a real sheriff’s badge for a $5,000 campaign contribution. He put his uniform jacket on a nearly naked prostitute in his hotel room during a trip to Moscow. He helped skim more than $100,000 from death proceeds that were supposed to go to the wives of fallen deputies. He lied on financial-disclosure forms. He promoted morally unfit deputies to high positions in exchange for personal loyalty. He used the kidnapping, rape and murder of a child as a vehicle to bolster his political career. He tried to sleep with the wife of an incarcerated inmate. He hid or destroyed embarrassing public records. He gave now-thoroughly documented favors to a convicted murderer, to a swindler, to a corporate crook and to the unapologetic rapist of a 16-year-old girl.
Given that partial list of sins, it was fitting that our county’s ex-top cop tried to save himself by employing an appellate argument first crafted by—drum roll, please—East Coast organized-crime bosses. Carona argued that federal prosecutor Brett Sagel had violated the no-contact rule that bars government officials from eliciting incriminating statements from suspects who’ve hired defense lawyers. In his view, Sagel should have gotten permission from Dean Stewart, his lawyer, before ordering a pre-indictment listening device surreptitiously planted at the sheriff’s restaurant table. Mafia bosses love that concept because, if condoned by judges, the mere act of hiring a defense lawyer prior to an arrest would shield them from undercover FBI stings.
The federal appellate judges rejected Carona’s argument as “unavailing.”
There was good reason for Carona to want Sagel’s bug evidence tossed out. It put the lie to his carefully manufactured Christian persona, the one shamelessly sold by most mainstream-news outlets. Not thinking anyone could hear him but his dinner companion, the sheriff was himself: foul-mouthed, cocky, constantly on the prowl for “pussy,” greedy and desperate to cover up his crimes.
At one devastating point recorded on tape, the sheriff said he would never admit to accepting monthly cash bribes unless forced to because a pinhole camera in a ceiling had captured the crime. At another point, he asked if he should worry if someone had photocopied the serial numbers on the $100 bills before they were given to him as bribes. He was told no.
“That part is why I sleep real well at night,” responded Carona, confident at the time he’d outwitted federal agents.
Recall that two years ago this month, Carona left the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana after his conviction and laughed—like he’d just heard the funniest joke of his life, then stopped for an impromptu press conference and, wearing a smirk, praised God for handing him a “miracle.”
What kind of man, let alone a public official, gets convicted of a felony, sees himself unmasked as a scumbag, and then proudly declares he has been absolved of wrongdoing?
Answer: a delusional freak put into power by Republican Party insiders after spending his law-enforcement career as a glorified court bailiff who’d never made any arrests or solved any crimes.
Having been a front-row observer of the long, ugly (if occasionally entertaining) Carona debacle, I can report that the real miracle of the ex-sheriff’s impending 66-month trip to federal prison is the unlikely astrological convergence of decent people whose actions partially restored my faith in our system. I say miracle because having covered government in this county for 16 years, I know how either cowards or crooks in positions of power like to thwart justice. That observation is especially true when seeking justice entails chasing a dirty cop or politician.
But though Carona had numerous establishment types (and, for far too long, a protective, gullible Orange County Register newsroom) working behind-the-scenes to shield him from accountability, they weren’t able to overcome the work of journalists like myself and Christine Hanley at the Los Angeles Times, the relentless determination of Sagel in the U.S. Attorney’s office, and the untainted manner in which federal Judge Andrew J. Guilford runs his courtroom. Make no mistake: In the hands of other reporters, prosecutors and judges, Carona likely would still be in control of the $800 million-per-year agency.
In coming weeks, Guilford will set a date for Carona to surrender. Don’t weep for him too much: Carona is likely to land at Federal Correctional Institution, Englewood in Colorado, where life is more like Andy Griffith’s Mayberry jail than the horrors of Pelican Bay State Prison. At Englewood, inmates enjoy foosball, billiards and Ping-Pong.
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And there’s this: Thanks to a state Legislature that is always looking for ways to grant cops, even certifiably dirty ones, special status over the rest of us, our convicted-felon ex-sheriff will continue to collect his taxpayer-funded government pension. It’s more than $20,000-per-month for the rest of his life.
This column appeared in print as "No More Excuses for Mike Carona: Federal Appeals Court upholds the ex-sheriff’s conviction, and he’s finally headed to prison."