[Moxley Confidential] Mike Carona’s Defense Team Accidentally Produce a Rogue-Cop Hero: Don Haidl

Under the appreciative gaze of Mike Carona, federal public defender Sylvia Torres-Guillen stepped to the podium Nov. 21 in the indicted ex-sheriff’s corruption trial and, in a relentless, scolding tone, called Don Haidl, the government’s top witness who was testifying, “a rat” and “a snitch.” The diminutive attorney accused him of being dishonest, manipulative, sleazy and a sexist. As if the word were profanity, she even labeled him a “salesman.”

“I am a business owner,” said Haidl, who claims he bought an assistant sheriff’s badge from Carona for $30,000 in illegal campaign contributions during a close 1998 election and, at the urging of Carona, funneled more than $65,000 to Torres-Guillen’s client, Debra V. Hoffman, the ex-sheriff’s top mistress and a co-defendant in the alleged criminal conspiracy.

Torres-Guillen ignored the correction and continued, “You are far more sophisticated than George Jaramillo,” she asserted, referring to the hand-picked second-in-command of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department under Carona—a man the defense maintains is the “Satan” whose immorality culminated, unfairly, in Carona’s arrest last year.

“[Jaramillo’s] got a law degree,” Haidl said. “I dropped out of the 10th grade. Sophisticated? You be the judge.”

It’s Torres-Guillen’s style to ask a series of rapid-fire questions, whether or not they lead anywhere in particular, in order to make an impression on the jury of 11 men (eight of whom are, like Haidl, older than 50) and a lone, middle-aged woman. For example, Haidl’s wealth is no secret to the panel. He lives in a palatial Newport Coast estate not far from Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant. He owns another nice home in Nevada. Governors accept his phone calls. He has yachts and private jets and has admitted to making $300,000 per month.

But Torres-Guillen wanted to re-emphasize the point.

“How many lawyers do you have?” asked Torres-Guillen, obviously trying to unnerve the witness. “Seventeen?”

Haidl paused, leaned to the microphone, paused again and eventually said, “Maybe four.” As the lawyer scribbled on her notes and searched for another question, Haidl—who’d earlier accused Torres-Guillen of “taking my words and twisting them”—added, sarcastically, “Is that a good number?”

She looked up and fired back, “You tell me, Mr. Haidl.”

But Haidl robbed the defense of its moment.

“I’d prefer to have zero,” he deadpanned.

Several jurors cracked wide smiles. One front-row juror couldn’t contain his delight. From the media’s back-row perch, I could hear him snort.

The biggest surprise of the ongoing trial is that a tough-talking defense hasn’t yet provided a scintilla of meaningful exculpatory evidence for Carona or Hoffman. In fairness, they’ve got a tricky task, given Carona’s own voluntary discussions with Haidl (memorialized by a secret, FBI-supplied recording device) about “untraceable” money, assurances that serial numbers on $100 bills weren’t photographed before the payoffs and the airing of ways to thwart a probing federal grand jury.

The second surprise of the case is the emergence of Haidl as a scrappy, witty—even likable—fellow. This may be a difficult assertion to swallow given Haidl’s scary, no-holds-barred defense of his son on gang-rape charges several years ago. Let me explain.

In contrast to Carona’s now-well-documented character flaws, which make his carefully crafted public persona a joke, Haidl doesn’t appear fake. I haven’t necessarily bought all of his answers, but he’s not trying to pretend he’s an angel. He’s repeatedly made embarrassing admissions about his drive to help an ambitious Carona rise to a statewide office to “gain access to the state checkbook.”

Such admissions are music to the hears of investigative reporters. But the defense team believes they’ve successfully slimed Haidl. In my view, his candor—something alien to every fiber in Carona’s body—might score with jurors.

Older Americans, who dominate this jury, typically love Clint Eastwood’s rogue-cop character Dirty Harry, despite his rule-bending habits. The admiration is counterintuitive. People seem to admire gruff, no-bullshit attitudes.

All of this is lost on the defense.

Torres-Guillen asked Haidl if he knew his onetime banker at First American Bank “cared about you”?

The expression on Haidl’s face showed he believed the question was ridiculous. “That’s nice to hear,” he slowly replied.

More smiles from jurors.

She moved to another subject. This time, a question won this Haidl answer: “If a person’s word is no good, handshake’s no good, then having a piece of paper [a contract] is meaningless.”

The defense lawyer looked at the jury and saw one male juror stroking the bridge of his nose as if he was enduring a migraine headache.

Torres-Guillen switched subjects. She asked Haidl a question that should never have come out of her mouth. At Haidl’s insistence, his sister Peggy, the delivery person for some of the regular bribes, had received immunity from prosecution.

“You wanted to protect your sister?” the defense lawyer asked.

Haidl leaned to the witness-stand microphone and said, “I have all my life.”

There you have it, folks. Courtesy of the defense, jurors can appreciate that Haidl is wildly rich, loves to cut corners, dreams big, is overly generous to friends and—talk about winning points—loves his sister.

At his table, Carona, who’d been visibly delighted by the attacks on his old best friend, stole quick glances at certain jurors to see if they were gauging his reaction to Haidl’s testimony. His heavy-faced look suggested he’d been wounded by betrayal. And just as we’ve come to expect from our actor/ex-sheriff, to emphasize his holiness, he cocked his hands in prayer and held them steady at chin level.

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