The Crooked Sheriff Chuckled
Plot to thwart a federal bribery probe amused Mike Carona
As an FBI agent pushed open the wooden doors to a Santa Ana federal courtroom last week, a tall, rail-thin multimillionaire with a ninth-grade education walked in on stiff legs, raised his right hand and, with a gravelly voice that seemed to channel Nixon, swore to tell the truth.
You may recall Don Haidl from the infamous Haidl Gang Rape case. The crime and trials dominated Southern California news from 2002 to 2006 because of what his son and two other young men did to an unconscious 16-year-old girl at a Newport Beach high-school party. A quiet, intense man and loving father, Don Haidl—then one of Mike Carona’s assistant sheriffs—fought ruthlessly to prevent his son from going to prison, but lost.
Now, two years later, Haidl—the man who’d illegally made Carona Orange County’s sheriff a decade ago because he thought it would be “fun”—has returned to court under far different circumstances. This time, he’s not trying to cheat justice. Haidl acknowledges he poured about $200,000 in illegal funds into our indicted ex-sheriff’s first campaign and paid another couple of hundred thousand in cash bribes and free gifts to win influence. He is the key prosecution witness in United States v. Michael S. Carona.
There are hints of Haidl’s importance everywhere. The man enters the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse at a non-public underground entrance. Armed federal agents escort him in hallways and elevators. And if Carona plays unworried by the testimony of others, Haidl’s trips to the witness stand since Nov. 5 have literally wiped the smiles off our ex-top cop’s face.
At some point in his life, Carona—who craved rising to statewide, if not federal, office—must have discovered the power of his looks and words to project sincerity and warmth. One of my photographers recently reminded me that he’s still got the charisma of a man who could get you to thank him after he’d stolen your wallet. Or wife.
But sadly for Carona, it’s not just his word versus the testimony of a long list of government witnesses. There are canceled checks, flight logs, photographs, video, suspicious contracts, personal ledgers, letters, credit-card statements, falsified reports and, perhaps most devastating, Haidl’s biggest gift to the prosecution: eight hours of secretly recorded 2007 conversations between the two men.
What have we learned from the tapes played so far in court? Carona—who publicly claims his daily life is guided by the Bible—likes to use the word “nigger”; spatters “fuck” throughout his chats; and is obsessed with extramarital affairs, money and power. Of course, hypocrisy isn’t illegal.
It is, however, against the law for an elected official to accept cash and expensive gifts; lie repeatedly under oath to hide those transactions; conspire to make the Orange County Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) a vehicle for hidden personal profit; urge a witness to give false testimony; and to reward Haidl, the generous businessman thirsting for law-enforcement powers, with a sheriff’s badge, a high rank and full police authority.
Some prominent members of the local Republican Party, who promoted and later protected Carona long after it was clear he was tragically flawed, bitch that Haidl cooperated with the FBI in hopes of getting a reduced sentence for committing income-tax evasion—something Haidl freely admits. The Carona apologists also claim Haidl’s recordings of three meetings prove nothing. Though it’s farfetched to think the sheriff would say, “I accepted bribes,” to his benefactor, these folks claim the lack of this specific declaration on the tapes is meaningful.
I’ve got a few questions:
• Why would Carona say, “Yeah, me, too,” after Haidl said he’s “scared shitless” that Carona’s chief mistresses, Debra V. Hoffman—a woman with knowledge of the sheriff’s repeated free use of, for example, Haidl’s private jets—gave a lengthy interview to FBI agents?
• Why didn’t Carona say, “What the fuck are you talking about?” when Haidl said he’d paid him $1,000 per month in cash for “three years.”
• Why did the sheriff say “the limited cash that I had didn’t end up in bank accounts”?
• Why did the sheriff ask Haidl if he’d photocopied the serial numbers on the cash?
• Why did the sheriff and Haidl comfort each other that the cash was “untraceable”?
• Why did the sheriff explain that “some of the gifts that I got were, was, was the, was the only flexible money I had in my entire life”?
If that weren’t enough to fry Carona, Assistant United States Attorney Brett Sagel played two other incriminating segments of the tapes. In the first one, the two men discussed thwarting Sagel’s probe by claiming the cash had been innocent gifts.
Haidl: How the fuck am I going to file a gift tax saying I gave money to fucking you, you know? It can’t happen, you know?
The men settled on a different ruse during their Aug. 13, 2007, dinner at the Bayside Restaurant in Newport Beach. Believing federal agents had summoned Haidl to testify, Carona concluded that portion of the pre-indictment conversation saying, “Did it [the bribes] ever happen?”
Haidl replied, “Right . . . as long as you and me are telling the same story . . .”
The sheriff—the man elected three times by campaigning as an honest agent of reform—chuckled.
In his opening statement, Sagel said he’d prove that Haidl “was looking to buy power, and Mike Carona and George Jaramillo were selling it.” After two weeks of testimony, it appears the prosecutor has succeeded. The only hope for defense lawyers Brian A. Sun and Jeffrey Rawitz is to cast Jaramillo—Carona’s campaign manager, “friend for life,” travel companion and hand-picked second in command at the OCSD—as the criminal mastermind who operated without the knowledge and consent of the man usually standing beside him.
Haidl may have been instrumental in shattering that hope.
“They [Carona and Jaramillo] were a magical team,” he testified. “Not to be disrespectful, but I’d refer to them as ‘The Preacher’ and ‘The Pickpocket.’ They were more upfront [with their demands for cash] than anybody I’ve ever seen in my life. . . . I’d say they were joined at the hip.”
In the midst of a heated, close race in 1998 against Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters, Carona and Jaramillo promised Haidl that the sheriff’s department would be “at my disposal” if he’d initially put $30,000 in illegal contributions into the campaign.
“[Carona] offered an awful lot for a relatively small amount,” testified Haidl.
Sagel asked what story Carona wanted told if someone questioned suspicious contributions.
“He said that everyone was going to deny everything,” said Haidl. “He needed plausible deniability. . . . He used the term that he didn’t want his ‘fingerprints’ on it. George was to be the bad guy. He was the guy who’d take the heat—be the bad guy, the front guy, the buffer. [Carona] used those words.”
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If Jaramillo was assigned the role of bad cop, what role did Carona want?
Haidl quickly leaned to the microphone, bumped it accidentally with his lips, backed off slightly and said with a deep, raspy voice shaped by years of chain-smoking cigarettes, “The tough sheriff with the great heart.”