Did a 66-month sentence in the federal pokey and a 28-minute dressing-down by a judge put the slightest dent in Mike Carona’s smug mug? Well, just look at him
As a natty Mike Carona and his sleepy-eyed wife walked from a parking garage to the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana on April 27, more than half a dozen news photographers ran to the ex-sheriff. Though Carona was headed to what was likely to be the most embarrassing event of his life, a contented smile cracked across his tanned, slightly more-rounded-than-usual face. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. Remember the moment when Mike Tyson changed from awe-inspiring heavyweight boxer to pathetic, ear-biting freak? It felt like that.
Make no mistake: This Carona clown loves—no, craves—attention despite his criminal behavior and ethical blunders, which have destroyed the reputation of California’s second-largest police agency. Since his 2007 arrest and early 2008 departure, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) is still trying to air out the stench of Carona’s helicopter blow jobs, on-duty “fuck pads” for mistresses, organized-crime associations, badges-for-cash deals, gross incompetence, and the pathological use of a little girl’s tragic kidnapping, rape and murder for cheap political advancement—or as a shield against corruption charges.
A story that began exclusively years ago on these pages ended Monday in dramatic fashion for our former top cop. U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Guilford sentenced Carona to 66 months in prison, a move Carona’s lawyers immediately said they will attempt to overturn on legal technicalities. But Guilford wasn’t amused that the highest-ranking law-enforcement official in Orange County repeatedly attempted to sabotage a federal grand jury investigating corruption at the top of the OCSD by coaching a potential witness to lie.
“There’s a difference between being a great character and having character,” a stern Guilford told Carona and a packed 10th-floor courtroom. He went on to say that the “measure of a man is what he does in private.”
Secret FBI and IRS recordings played during the trial had captured the sheriff privately bragging to Newport Beach businessman Don Haidl, a co-conspirator, that he “sleeps real well at night” because he didn’t think pinhole cameras had captured him pocketing monthly envelopes stuffed with crisp $100 bills. In the same conversation, the sheriff—a close pal of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger who had caught the eye of the George W. Bush White House—wondered aloud if Haidl had photocopied the serial numbers on the cash bribes. He said he used the funds primarily to pay for his sex dates with and romantic gifts for various government secretaries and consultants, the number of which I stopped counting long ago.
“This is a very serious offense,” said Guilford, who described himself as “very sad” because of the damage the sheriff’s conduct had done to local law enforcement and the community at large. “I need a sheriff I can trust.”
It’s instructive to note the three distinct phases of our two-faced convicted felon on the day of his sentencing. Before the start of the post-lunch hearing, a smiling Carona entered the courtroom, shook hands and gave warm hugs to his Alice In Wonderland-like entourage that included droopy-faced former deputies, bailiffs and more than a few ill-fitting toupees. You’d have thought it was a GOP fund-raiser at the Caspian.
Carona eventually sat at the defense table, where he laughed heartily at a quip by the man who saved him from more convictions, Los Angeles-based criminal lawyer Jeffrey Rawitz. While the lawyers debated the intricacies of sentencing guidelines for more than 90 minutes, Carona appeared confident and relaxed—occasionally deploying his trademark puppy face whenever federal prosecutor Brett Sagel spoke of his dirty deeds. He nodded in agreement when Brian Sun, one of his other lawyers, blamed the media for the trial and said it was “nutty” that prosecutors wanted prison time for the ex-sheriff. Before the sentence was announced, Carona stood, adjusted his shoulders inside his tight-fitting gray suit, smiled awkwardly, attempted briefly to charm Guilford by thanking him for his kindness and sat down.
When it was Guilford’s turn, Carona swiveled left in his seat to face the bench. For 28 minutes, the judge lectured him on the importance of honesty and ethics. “I do believe the victim in this case is our community and the criminal-justice system . . . [and] lying won’t be tolerated in this courtroom,” the judge said. He told the ex-sheriff that his conduct “causes me some shame” as an OC resident. He even conceded he was perplexed that Carona had declared himself “totally vindicated” and “innocent” after the January verdicts.
“I didn’t understand the unrestrained celebrations and proclamations of vindication,” Guilford said. “A wrong message was sent regarding respect for the law and deterrence.”
And, finally, someone other than the prosecutors and me told Carona to stop blaming his wrongdoing on co-conspirators Haidl and George Jaramillo. “Neither Mr. Haidl nor Mr. Jaramillo was elected to be the chief law-enforcement officer in this county,” Guilford said before noting that he believes there are two Mike Caronas: one who is sweet and likeable on the surface, and the other, the private one, a liar and cheat. (I’d only add coward to the list.) To drive his frustration home, Guilford ordered him to pay the maximum allowable fine, $125,000, in addition to going to prison.
It had been easy for Carona to dismiss such analysis when it came from the Weekly, but this time, it came from a well-respected, thoughtful federal judge—and fellow OC Republican, to boot! Carona’s reaction to the tongue-lashing? Except for licking his lips twice, he sat still and expressionless.
Had the experience awoken at least a faint ping of remorse? Would he cry again—this time in shame? Would the man who gets to remain free until July 24 offer apologies?
Take a look at the photograph that accompanies this column. It’s Carona exiting the federal courthouse shortly after he had been sentenced to prison.
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He’s pathologically without remorse.