This Time, It's Personal
Businessman Ronald Cedillos hasn't told the whole story of his falling-out with Mike Carona
Thanks to a photographed, cozy 2005 embrace between not-yet-indicted former sheriff Mike Carona and not-yet-indicted felon Rick Rizzolo, who has more mob connections than Mario Puzo, we now know to be leery of our sheriff's pals. On June 3, the Orange County Board of Supervisors selected Sandra Hutchens as the supposedly squeaky-clean replacement for Carona, who faces an October trial on federal bribery charges. Upon learning of her victory, Hutchens turned and hugged Republican businessman Ronald L. Cedillos. On June 19, I identified Cedillos as a man once deeply immersed in Carona's inner cesspool. It was also no secret that Cedillos has spent years lobbying law-enforcement agencies for government contracts.
The following week, Frank Mickadeit—The Orange County Register's gossip columnist—announced that he and Cedillos are buddies, having spent an evening together smoking "cigars and drinking Lagavulin into the early morning." Mickadeit told his readers he'd gotten Cedillos' permission to reveal why he'd split with Carona during the sheriff's first term.
"[Cedillos] said he was critical of two of Carona's early decisions: to make [Don] Haidl an assistant sheriff and a (later aborted) plan to affix Carona's name to patrol cars," wrote Mickadeit. "The big blowout with Carona occurred at a party in Newport Beach that devolved into a shouting match between the two men. That night, Cedillos said, they argued over whether Carona was being loyal to low-ranking deputies who had supported him."
There you have it, folks: Cedillos was trying to serve as a conscience to a man without one. Carona's glad-handing style of corruption should be a mandatory component in university criminal-psychology courses. But there's reason to think that, for once, Carona wasn't necessarily the bad guy.
Internal sheriff's-department documents obtained by OC Weekly suggest that Cedillos forgot to tell Mickadeit the full story of his falling-out with Carona. Indeed, the ruptured relationship between Cedillos and Carona involved a personal slight, the inability of Cedillos to grab law-enforcement-related contracts—and, apparently, a contentious scandal in Cedillos' personal life.
Says who? Cedillos himself, in a Nov. 2, 2000, letter he sent to Carona.
"I know you think I was angry because of the drug and alcohol contract," Cedillos wrote. "That really wasn't the issue, and I should have been more candid with you that evening at Kathie Haidl's party. It all started [the] day of the swearing in ceremony. I know this is going to appear childish, but I unfortunately suffer from the same hypersensitivity to slights from friends that you do. That day you thanked everyone but me . . . I felt pretty forgotten by you."
Later in the letter, Cedillos acknowledged that he and his partners (Bob White and Buck Johns) weren't happy that, after they'd contributed to Carona's campaign, they hadn't won a proposed multimillion-dollar drug-treatment-center contract, and "when I learned that you went to [Los Angeles County Sheriff] Lee Baca and killed any chance I had to build the women's facility for the LASD, I was more than stunned. . . . When I questioned your motives, I was told you weren't going to let me make any money to use against you in your next campaign."
Cedillos admitted that at a 2000 George W. Bush event, he'd made derogatory comments about Carona to District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and ex-Supervisor Gaddi Vasquez, knowing they'd relay them to the sheriff. "I retract everything I said," Cedillos wrote. "I truly regretted all of that and have worked hard at making up for what I said. I hope you know that my retractions took place long before the Strauss matter."
The "Strauss matter" he referred to is a still-unresolved dispute that has generated some interesting correspondence to and among Orange County public officials—correspondence that bears directly on the Carona/Cedillos relationship.
Two months before Cedillos' letter to Carona, in September 2000, Dr. Paul U. Strauss, a prominent San Diego psychiatrist, wrote Carona a four-page letter that described Cedillos, to whom the sheriff had given a reserve-deputy badge and a concealed-weapons permit, as an "evil and sadistic man" who was abusing Strauss' then-34-year-old daughter, Kathleen.
"We are concerned enough to write you in your official capacity because some of Mr. Cedillos' behavior may violate the law, and he may have access to sheriff's department computers or connections to harass, control or intimidate our daughter and her friends now that she's been attempting to free herself from his domination."
Strauss' letter went on to claim that Cedillos smashed Kathleen's cell phone "in a fit of rage," somehow obtained her new private cell phone number and "held her captive for five days at his Laguna Niguel home" after learning that she wanted to date another man.
"Mr. Cedillos also traced Kathleen's telephone calls to this man, and located his name and address," Strauss wrote to Carona. "Mr. Cedillos made a series of telephone calls to this man . . . and threatened to break the man's fingers so that he could not work at his tile setting job, and/or have drugs planted in his car and then have him arrested."
According to Strauss, "a day or two after the above telephone calls, Mr. Cedillos sent two thugs to this man's house and they accosted him outside his door as he was leaving for work. They threatened to kill him if he went near Kathleen."
In his Nov. 2, 2000, letter to Carona, Cedillos wrote that Strauss had retracted "each and every malicious allegation"; Cedillos acknowledged that he'd been asked (he didn't say by whom) to resign as a reserve deputy over the affair.
But according to county counsel records labeled "confidential," Carona didn't believe Cedillos' denials, wanted him fired from the reserves and had asked for a secret legal opinion.
"You received allegations from a husband and wife in San Diego (the informants) that [Cedillos] was having an affair with their daughter, and seemed obsessed with her," wrote Assistant County Counsel James F. Meade on April 13, 2001. "They indicate that [Cedillos] had virtually stalked their daughter."
Meade's opinion noted that Carona felt that Cedillos had not used department resources to spy on the woman, but that the sheriff "believes that [Cedillos'] attorney 'frightened off' the [Strausses]."
Meade recommended to Carona that he let Cedillos remain in the reserves, in part because Strauss had recanted his original letter and a jury might not appreciate the flip-flop if Cedillos filed a wrongful-termination lawsuit. The sheriff kept him.
Cedillos told me he has "irrefutable proof" the accusations are "blatantly false." For example, he provided an Oct. 8, 2000, letter signed by Kathleen Strauss, who disputed "my parents' hysteria surrounding this matter." She also signed a two-page declaration supporting Cedillos' version of events.
But a year after that letter, Kathleen faxed Carona, telling him that Cedillos had pressured her to discredit her father and claiming that Cedillos had sent "lewd nude photos of me" to numerous people listed on her computer's e-mail address folder.
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She and her parents "simply want to be left alone," she wrote. "I am still quite afraid."
Contacted for this article, Strauss and his wife, Anita, said that although they and their daughter had contacted the San Diego Police Department, no charges were ever filed. "We saw we'd be in a fight with a skunk," Strauss said.
Cedillos sees this whole affair as a conspiracy: "Carona's people have been threatening me with this information for almost a decade, and quite frankly, I am fed up with it."