Donning a smile and a spiffy dark blue suit and blue shirt (paid for by unknown persons), indicted ex-Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona walked into the federal courtroom last week with the gait of a man who still carried a badge, shook hands as if his name will be on an upcoming ballot, and (some things never change) traded over-animated chit chat with a hot blond legal adviser in front of his wife and one of his mistresses.
It was Halloween and Carona came dressed as himself: a frighteningly weak, perverted and corrupt politician who wrecked the lives of numerous women, shattered his former, undeservedly stellar reputation, shamed the nation’s fifth largest sheriff’s department and embarrassed the citizens of the County of Orange. Of course, the most prominent outward feature of the Carona costume mask is a confident smile exuding a fraudulent aw-shucks demeanor.
Even now, after a brutal first week in his federal corruption trial, Carona has done his damnedest to appear confident, sometimes even cocky. In a stinging 81-minute opening statement by prosecutor Brett Sagel, a jury of 11 men and one woman heard a secret FBI surveillance recording of our then-sheriff bragging in a pre-indictment conversation that federal prosecutors only knew about the “Nigger money. It’s literally nigger money . . . All this shit [the grand jury probe] surrounds nigger money.”
In Carona’s parlance, “nigger money” refers to the tiny-sized bribes it took to get black law enforcement officers in Los Angeles to betray the public trust during a past scandal.
Carona’s reaction to the airing of the sound bite? He adopted O.J. Simpson’s courtroom posture. He lifted his chin, threw his head back and to the right and stared with a hint of a contemptuous smile at the Assistant United States Attorney. About once a minute, he blinked so slowly you’d have thought he was reminiscing about his partying with wealthy crooks and loose women.
Sagel and co-federal prosecutor Ken Julian have done a nice job making the case that there are two Caronas. One is a fast-drinking, foul-mouthed con man (touted by yourself truly since 1999) who can’t be trusted with his badge, your wallet or someone else’s wife. The other, the fake one (touted by certain folks at The Orange County Register), is a “Christian conservative” who likes to publicly profess that God runs his daily life and, when people are watching, prays before restaurant meals.
If you’re undecided which portrait is more accurate, consider trial evidence that Carona took a free, secret private jet ride (one of many) to Las Vegas, went to a Bellagio “21” casino table, held the palm of his hand up, took about $7,000 in gambling chips from a shady businessman, lost it all and opened his palm again to receive a new stack of chips.
Or that, in hopes of challenging U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, Carona accepted an illegal $250,000 campaign contribution in 2002 from a former Florida narcotics trafficker and then bitched angrily that the contributor, Hank Asher, had shortchanged him from a promised secret, illegal $500,000 check.
Or that Carona let Debra Hoffman, one of his mistresses, pay 50 percent of the monthly rent for—these are his words secretly captured by FBI surveillance—“a place to fuck.”
One more brief but character revealing story. According to testimony, in 1998 then-candidate Carona ordered a pilot in a plane dragging a massive Carona campaign banner to fly low, annoying circles over the home of his challenger, Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters, during a weekend; and then told the pilot to hide records not just of the flights but who illegally paid more than $15,000 for them.
But the funniest moment so far in the trial (except for the physical comedy provided by defense lawyer Brian A. Sun, whose feet routinely find computer wires to trip over), took place outside the presence of the jury on Friday. It involved evidence I’d revealed in the Weekly two years ago: sexually-loaded birthday cards Carona sent to Lisa Jaramillo, the wife of his top assistant at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. On at least two occasions, the sheriff signed the cards as from him, his wife, his son and “the little sheriff”—his dick.
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The jury got to see photocopies of the cards (not the originals, which I possess). It also heard from Jaramillo that Carona wasn’t just sending her risqué cards, sleeping with mistress Hoffman but also sleeping with her sister, Erica Hill, plus organizing the cover-up of how businessman Don Haidl was illegally funding his campaign to be top cop and accepting monthly cash bribes.
Once the jury left the courtroom, defense lawyers Sun and Jeff Rawitz—who portray Carona as “the victim”—demanded a mistrial because they felt the prosecution shouldn’t have been allowed to get all that information to the jury. Sagel and Julian fired back from their perspective. But in the midst of the heated back-in-forth U.S. District Judge Andrew Guilford, who eventually overruled the defense, made this inadvertently hilarious statement: “I didn’t hear a motion to strike the little sheriff!’”
Your honor, allow me to say from the bleachers, that it’s been stricken and is now simply little.
— R. Scott Moxley/ OC Weekly