Who Hired This Crew?
Indicted ex-OC sheriff banking on jury finding him an angel among thieves
After more than a year of preparation to defend indicted ex-Sheriff Mike Carona on corruption charges, Brian A. Sun—the expensive Los Angeles criminal-defense attorney—stood before an Orange County jury last week and glanced casually at the jury of 11 men and one woman. Though Sun had a sloppy wardrobe, I’ll admit I held high expectations. He’d won international fame several years ago for his successful defense of Wen Ho Lee, who was accused of being a spy for communist China. And the unrepentant remnants of the Carona machine continued to guarantee privately the FBI’s case is so weak that its own evidence proves our former top cop is innocent.
“Their case stinks,” one well-known Carona ally, who claims he’s familiar with the case, told me. “They’re going to lose.”
But instead of brilliance, Sun simply regurgitated tired lines I’d heard for more than two years from Carona and his apologists: The key folks who will testify in the case are all well-known liars and crooks. Sun called them “dubious sources” and worse.
Okay, Brian. So what does that reveal about your client?
These witnesses—George Jaramillo, Don Haidl and Joe Cavallo—are the men whom Carona chose as his closest personal companions for many years. He called them “brothers for life.” He drank and partied and traveled with them and, from his powerful perch, handed them invaluable favors. He lied to the media for them. He even ignored a lack of qualifications to give two of them badges and the title of assistant sheriff. Real law-enforcement officers were forced to salute them in the hallways of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
So consider: The only person from this group of “brothers” who has so far escaped a criminal conviction is Carona, who hails himself as a “Christian conservative” whose daily life is guided by the Bible. According to Sun, that’s fair. In his view, our ex-sheriff was the lone, unsoiled angel among a pack of “thieves.”
“At every point, he chose the citizens of Orange County [instead of joining in the looting committed by Haidl, Jaramillo and Cavallo],” Sun told jurors. “There is no documentary evidence to establish any criminal activity. It’s really he said [versus] she said.”
Sun then suggested Carona is the “victim.”
I might have used my handkerchief to wipe away a tear if minutes earlier I hadn’t heard Assistant United States Attorney Brett Sagel play an FBI-surveillance audio recording of the prosecution’s chief witness against Carona: Carona.
Among the things our then-sheriff said when he didn’t know he was ?being recorded:
.Told Haidl—the man who now says he gave Carona monthly cash bribes, free use of private jets, free suits, free booze, free meals, free hotels and more than $200,000 in illegal campaign contributions—that the reason “why I sleep well at night” is because he doesn’t think the FBI placed “pinhole cameras” in his ceiling.
.Bragged that a federal grand jury investigating his conduct only knew about the “nigger money. Literally, it’s nigger money. All this shit [the probe], surrounds nigger money.” That’s Carona-ese for trivial amounts.
.Opined to Haidl, whom he called a “stand-up motherfucker,” that what is “unique about this relationship is they [FBI agents] can’t get one without the other.”
.Worried that prosecutors might get him on “the Martha Stewart thing”—that is, lying to investigators.
.Prompted Haidl to remember that “nothing’s traceable” if he was summoned by the grand jury.
Sun says he “doesn’t fear” Carona’s words. Sagel and co-prosecutor Ken Julian have taken them out of context, he says. We’ll see when the tapes are played in open court.
But it’s not just the recordings. Each day, the trial, which is expected to last into December, brings new evidence of Carona’s corruption: Consider that he 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 Haidl; lost it all—and then 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.”
Or that, under the ruse of offering sincere condolences to Deputy Brad Warner’s grieving widow at a hospital, Carona brought along a personal-injury lawyer, Cavallo—who was later convicted in an unrelated illegal-kickback scheme—and suggested she hire him on the spot.
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Nonetheless, Sun continues to maintain that the government’s “theory” of Carona’s corruption is “odd.” All the expensive, unreported gifts Haidl gave Carona, for example, had nothing to do with bribes to make the glorified used-car salesman an assistant sheriff at California’s second-largest police agency.
“That’s how people relate when they are friends,” said Sun, who maintains that Carona was “a deeply committed public servant to the citizens of this county.”