They Got the Sheriff
Besides the $700 million-per-year budget and the right to boss around 4,000 underlings, the sheriff of Orange County enjoys an undeniable perk: Everybody wants to be his friend. A weak individual with deep, unresolved emotional issues would have a hard time resisting the temptations of this weighty job. Members of the opposite sex go wide-eyed over the gold stars on his shirt collar, the badge over his chest and the pistol in his holster. Businessmen with massive yachts and private planes seek an association to enhance their reputations, or to gain secret use of departmental spy equipment. In the hope of obstructing justice, crooks are willing to pay for dinners, drinks, luxury vehicles and vacations, or simply offer old-fashioned cash bribes.
Sadly, Michael S. Carona is a deeply flawed individual. This week, the U.S. Attorney's office, in conjunction with the FBI and a federal grand jury, threw a 10-count corruption indictment at Carona, two of his former assistant sheriffs, his wife and one of his numerous mistresses. Except for a few of us who never bought Carona's glad-handing, cheap smiles and constant lies, the indictment is a tsunami for Orange County government, politics and law enforcement.
In a world of constant scandal, this still qualifies as major national news. Carona is chummy with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who once openly considered the sheriff as a possible lieutenant-governor running mate. President George W. Bush appointed him to an elite national-security advisory board—though he has no anti-terrorist training, associates with organized-crime figures and has never made an arrest in his life. Way before anyone was willing to listen to OC Weekly's lone drumbeat, CNN's Larry King anointed Carona "America's sheriff," and the local media abandoned watchdog roles to treat his word as gospel.
Carona is nothing if not an opportunist. Before the wind could change direction after the national TV exposure, Carona ignited rumors of a planned challenge to U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer. National publications wondered if he was the future of the California Republican Party. The sheriff even sought Hollywood studios willing to feature him in a weekly crime-fighting reality show. He began traveling—at taxpayer expense—with an army of bodyguards that would rival the head of state of a small European nation. Department helicopters became aerial limousines for dates with women. He reneged on more than a dozen campaign promises. During his first election in 1998, Carona guaranteed he would serve no more than two four-year terms because it wasn't healthy for one person to hold such a powerful job any longer.
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Our sheriff is, of course, an extraordinary skillful liar. If one-tenth of the allegations contained in the 29-page indictment are true, a devious chameleon has been running our county's criminal-justice system. We already knew, for example, the self-styled Christian-conservative sheriff prowled for extramarital sex with government secretaries, ladies in cities a plane ride away, or—how's this for class?—the wives of criminal defendants arrested by his deputies. Who can forget the photo of the young, scantily clad Russian woman in the sheriff's Moscow hotel-suite bedroom wearing little more than the official uniform jacket the public loaned him?
It wasn't just sex on the sheriff's mind. The FBI now tells us that Carona positioned himself for bribes like a bouncer at an exclusive Hollywood nightclub. His game? Pay to play.
According to federal prosecutors, the sheriff used his public office to accept cash and other forms of bribes for years; lied to the IRS about the money; and recently attempted to get a co-conspirator, ex-Assistant Sheriff Donald Haidl, to lie to a federal grand jury.
"The defendants schemed to get Carona elected and to corruptly use the office of sheriff to enrich themselves," according to federal prosecutors Brett A. Sagel and Kenneth B. Julian, who allege that the crime plot began in 1998. Other allegations are that Haidl, a wealthy used-car salesman, gave Carona "regular monthly payments of $1,000," fraudulent campaign contributions, a yacht, loans, gifts, private jet trips and a luxury vacation to Lake Tahoe. FBI agents say bribes totaled more than $350,000. In exchange, they say Haidl got appointed assistant sheriff and obtained special treatment in the Orange County Jail for his gang-rapist son, Gregory Scott Haidl.
"The indictment of Mike Carona on conspiracy, witness-tampering and public-corruption charges serves to assure the public that their officials are, and will be, held accountable for their actions," said Debra D. King, special agent in charge of the IRS criminal-investigation division based in Los Angeles.
If convicted—and we're possibly a long way from that day—Carona faces a maximum prison term of more than 20 years.
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Federal agents also revealed that both Haidl and George Jaramillo, another of Carona's assistant sheriffs, have pleaded guilty to committing federal crimes. Jaramillo, the man Carona once called his "brother for life," was convicted earlier this year in a separate state bribery investigation. He's currently serving a jail sentence in LA.
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Flash back to 1999: Carona had been in office just five months. He and Jaramillo came to visit me and colleague Nick Schou at Weekly headquarters, then in Costa Mesa by John Wayne Airport. I'd been digging into payments businessmen were making to a secret Carona account in exchange for actual sheriff's badges and who knows whatever else. The arrangement stunk, and I told him so. The sheriff assured me that neither he nor his department would ever be for sale to the highest bidder. He talked about the importance of open, honest government. He asked us if we wanted helicopter rides. He asked us to work closely with him if we pursued corruption stories involving himself or his department.
I didn't care about helicopter rides or his sweet-sounding words and very real charm. I wanted him to prove to me he was clean by revealing the identities of the people who'd contributed to his secret account. No, he repeatedly stated.
Why not? I asked.
Don't worry, he said.
"No one is ever going to get close enough to me to compromise me," Carona said. "It just won't happen."
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