Mike Carona Still Isn't Serving as a Cautionary Tale for SoCal Law Enforcement

Mike Carona Still Isn't Serving as a Cautionary Tale for SoCal Law Enforcement
Illustration by Bill Hunt

Policing authority is an ego boost. Just ask Mike Carona. Around a year before the FBI arrested the Orange County sheriff for corruption in 2007, Carona showed up at a Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department facility with a four- or five-SUV entourage. South Central-hardened LA deputies who observed the arrival assumed a Secret Service detail had accompanied then-Vice President Dick Cheney. But OC's top cop--a glad-handing politician and career bureaucrat who'd never made a single arrest in his life--jumped out of a government vehicle amid heavy guard, a scene that prompted laughter at the absurd grandiosity.

From pampered office-holder to convicted felon (circa 2009), Carona's fall is now the stuff of history. U.S. District Court Judge Andrew J. Guilford issued a term of 66 months in prison and, in one of the most noble and necessary stern sentencing lectures in county history, slammed the disgraced cop for thinking he was above the law. Lying officers weren't tolerated in his courtroom, Guilford told a man who clearly didn't think he would serve a minute in prison. Following his conviction and on the way to the penitentiary, Carona earned a second identity: Inmate 45335-112.

Call it a coincidence or divine intervention, but May 14 served as a cautionary reminder for the public. On that day, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons released from custody Carona, who had been housed in minimum-security prisons in Colorado and Kentucky. Almost simultaneously, 30 miles up Interstate 5, the FBI arrested Paul Tanaka, the former No. 2 at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, and William "Tom" Carey, that agency's onetime internal-affairs-unit director. Federal prosecutors have not excluded ex-LASD Sheriff Lee Baca as a potential future arrestee.

The revolving door of warped individuals entering Southern California law-enforcement agencies as high-ranking cops and exiting as criminal defendants underscores an ugly reality: Ever-increasing policing powers, coupled with rare, meaningful oversight and willing public ignorance, is spawning an endless cycle of badged hooligans.

We know from Carona's case that he stole the 1998 election by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal contributions; accepted cash bribes, a boat, custom-made suits, booze and free private jet rides; partied with Las Vegas organized-crime figures tied to Kansas City, Chicago and New York mafia families; used his office to dispense gifts to pals; gave real badges to folks with rap sheets; converted his uniform into a chick magnet to procure a long list of on-duty adulterous affairs; sent birthday greetings to the wife of an underling, signing the cards "The Little Sheriff," the nickname he gave his penis; covered up God knows what when the FBI began looking into him (files disappeared from headquarters); suborned perjury to thwart a federal grand jury probe into his shenanigans; and made his No. 2 man at the Orange County Sheriff's Department George Jaramillo, a felon in state and federal court.   Carona, who entertained political ambitions for lieutenant governor or even higher office, fretted for years about what dirt the FBI was collecting on him. If prosecutors are right, Tanaka--who hired unsuccessful Carona defense lawyer H. Dean Steward--and Carey didn't care. They ignored the lessons of our fallen sheriff and acted as if their powers exceeded Uncle Sam's reach. According to an indictment, these men hid a federal informant collecting information on rampant jail-deputy corruption, doctored records, sanctioned false statements, tolerated misconduct and felt bold enough to threaten a female FBI agent with arrest in hopes of impeding a related investigation.

Now out of the slammer and the spotlight, Carona must feel relief with his newfound freedom. Contacted for comment, former California Republican Party chairman Michael J. Schroeder--the ex-sheriff's buddy and prison visitor, nicknamed "Vader"--wasn't willing to release any news nuggets. Schroeder has previously told other reporters the ex-sheriff, under house arrest until the completion of his sentence in November, is contemplating options. A touching TV interview? Tell-all memoir? Consulting gigs? Whatever he does, don't worry about the 59-year-old Carona. For the rest of his life, he will collect an annual, taxpayer-funded pension of more than $200,000.

***** WOO! WOO! WOO! WOO!

During the May 15-17 California Democratic Party Convention in Anaheim, Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez accidentally ensured her race against state Attorney General Kamala Harris to replace retiring U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer dominated the weekend's festivities. She uttered a stereotypical American Indian warrior battle cry of "Woo! Woo! Woo! Woo!" while standing in front of a group of Native Americans. Then, Sanchez dashed by a television-news camera crew to avoid explaining the incident.

The congresswoman, often a master of identity politics, harbors no ill will against Native Americans. She's just gaffe-prone. A 19-year stint in the House of Representatives somehow hasn't polished her speaking skills. Listening to a Sanchez speech is similar to watching a car chase on TV and wondering if you'll see a mangled disaster. She punctuates words with bizarrely timed laughter and wears distracting theatrical faces. Words sometimes stumble out of her mouth, even as she's reading her own prepared scripts. At other times, she makes little sense or fails at inspiration.

During the "Leadership Through Action" convention, for example, the 55-year-old Sanchez uttered this sentence: "So, Democrats, we are the Democratic Party!" Misty-eyed, she said, "I love people." And then: "Ideas are like sailboats. They can be beautiful, shiny and full of potential, but they can't go anywhere without the wind. What is the wind? You are. You are the wind."

It's almost not fair that Harris, a 50-year-old San Francisco Democrat, is comparatively a superb speaker. Either she can write coherent remarks or has a speech writer, a point Sanchez mocked by saying her messages aren't "handler"-driven. But without a professional rescuing the congresswoman, who is over-reliant on emotion, the disparity in presentations will likely increase during the campaign.

"I believe we can disrupt the dysfunction in D.C. as long as we don't throw up our hands and instead we roll up our sleeves," the state attorney general said in her shorter, less silly version of Sanchez's sailboat-wind story.

Harris is also capable of stringing together two independent thoughts, saying, "The same way we know marriage equality is a civil right, we know income inequality is a civil wrong."

Voter perceptions of the candidates' personalities and composures are going to matter because of their shared, traditionally lefty policy stances. Both women support gay marriage, immigrant protections, abortion rights, anti-income-inequality measures, union collective bargaining and consciousness of global climate change. But their prominent backers differ: Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) supports Harris, and Bill and Hilary Clinton like Sanchez.

Unsurprisingly, the campaigns claim to face a mutual enemy. Harris says she will fight the "science-deniers" and "the extremists in Congress," if elected. Sanchez notes she has spent years in Washington battling the "quirky, paranoid and downright whacky" Republicans.

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