Sex, Bribes and Jailhouse Scams


You might remember Joseph G. Cavallo as the lead attorney in the Greg Haidl gang-rape case; it was Cavallo who infamously called the victim in the case a “slut.” Now Cavallo has another distinguishing characteristic: he’s the second of Sheriff Mike Carona’s friends—men so close they called each other “brother”—to be indicted in the past 10 weeks.

In late July, the district attorney charged one of the brothers, ex-Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo, with accepting bribes from Charles H. Gabbard, a convicted felon Jaramillo met through Carona. Though Carona twice accepted thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions from Gabbard, the DA charged only Jaramillo.

On Oct. 5, prosecutors won an indictment against Cavallo. The charges allege that Cavallo operated an illegal kickback scheme involving bail bonds and inmates—inside Mike Carona’s Orange County Jail. Cavallo is expected to plead not guilty.

“I’m confident that I’ll win,” he said. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”

Cavallo says it’s no accident that he and Jaramillo, once the sheriff’s best friends, now find themselves on the wrong end of government indictments. It’s payback, according to Cavallo, for choosing sides in what has become the biggest power struggle in recent OC law-enforcement history. He says the sheriff ended their brotherhood when Cavallo refused to drop Jaramillo as a client. But there’s more to this story than bribery and bail bond scams. As with so many things involving powerful men like the sheriff, sex—and keeping secrets about sex—is at the center of the scandal.

* * *

Carona is a self-styled “conservative Christian.” But since last spring, he’s been plagued by leaks suggesting that he’s used his position as the county’s top cop to lure women into bed. Never mind that some of the allegations against him have been made under oath by people who face perjury charges if they’ve lied, or that the sheriff has refused recorded interviews by police detectives. His crisis-management lawyers say the sheriff is unconcerned.

In reality, the sheriff is panicked, says Cavallo, the sheriff’s friend and drinking buddy for 26 years. He says Carona’s family-values reputation is a façade. Married with one teenage son, Carona prays the public won’t learn that he is, as Cavallo calls him, a serial adulterer.

Cavallo says the story begins in June. The sheriff was attending an off-site strategic-planning meeting in Temecula. It was after midnight when he called Cavallo’s cell phone and left a 90-second message, a copy of which the Weekly obtained.

The message is explicit. It’s clear the sheriff believed he was speaking to a friend and could do so candidly. It’s just as clear the walls were closing in. In the very public battle between the sheriff and Jaramillo, Cavallo had chosen to represent Jaramillo. At the same time, Internal Affairs (IA) investigators in the sheriff’s department were pressing Carona to explain evidence that, in 2001 and 2002, he may have made unsolicited phone calls to Susan Holloway. An Aliso Viejo resident and distant relative of Jaramillo’s, Holloway was seeking a job at the department in 2001. In that year and the next, the sheriff invited the married woman “out for drinks” and to take a trip, according to a document she provided IA officers in May 2005. Carona was likely also aware that at least two news outlets, including the Weekly, had obtained details of the allegations.

That was the context of the late-night June phone call, a message that is rambling, disjointed and threatening. “I suggest neither he [Jaramillo] nor you nor anybody else you know, uh, if you want to engage in the media, be more than happy to do it,” the sheriff told Cavallo. “But, um, uh, there’s all kinds of issues on this and there’s all kinds of issues on him [Jaramillo]. Um, anyway, I’m not a happy camper, Joe, as you can probably tell . . . Jaramillo is a fuck!”

On the tape, Carona tells Cavallo he doesn’t “want to take it out” on him—but that Cavallo should consider himself warned about the dangers of Jaramillo publicizing the sheriff’s alleged extramarital activities: “I’m going to shove it up his ass,” says Carona, a Homeland Security adviser to President George W. Bush and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The sheriff is so concerned about his image he waited more than two days to respond to the Weekly‘s request for an interview. Instead of talking to reporters directly, he brought in Jennifer Keller, one of at least two of Carona’s high-powered private crisis-management attorneys. Keller said, “The sheriff absolutely and positively never made any such statements” to Cavallo.

In the audio recording, the sheriff blamed Jaramillo for the Holloway leak. But he was wrong. It was Holloway’s outraged husband.

Dean Holloway says he had the unpleasant experience of witnessing his wife answer an April 2002 phone call from the sheriff. The woman says Carona invited her to take a weekend trip to San Francisco. On another occasion, the sheriff reportedly left a voice-mail message for the woman at the couple’s Aliso Viejo home.

Susan Holloway, 31, told the sheriff’s IA officers, “I never invited the calls from Mike Carona and had no intention of calling him back.”

Keller told LA Times reporter Christine Hanley that the accusations were part of a “ridiculously transparent conspiracy” against a “great law-enforcement officer with a spotless record.”

However, Keller hasn’t explained how Holloway benefits from the conspiracy. Holloway has shunned media attention and asked for nothing from the sheriff. But Dean Holloway had a message for Carona. He told the Weekly, “The sheriff needs to leave other men’s wives alone.”

Carona’s efforts to keep a lid on the sex scandal failed in September when the grand jury released the testimony of another woman, Erica Hill—Jaramillo’s sister-in-law. Believing her story would remain secret, Hill testified in July that the sheriff demanded and received sexual favors from her on four occasions after her husband applied for a job as a deputy. Though Hill can name the location and time of each encounter, Carona flatly says she’s a liar. Hill has proposed that they take lie-detector tests.

“I’m not the only woman the sheriff has cheated with,” Hill told the Weekly. “He’s got to be scared that others will come forward and tell the truth.”

Law-enforcement files contain the names of still other alleged Carona mistresses.

* * *

Cavallo met Carona in 1979. At the county’s West Court, Cavallo worked as an intern in the district attorney’s office, while Carona served as a bailiff. Both weightlifters and ambitious, they bonded quickly.

Over the years, Cavallo and Carona have consumed plenty of alcohol together. They’ve camped together, visited each other’s homes and celebrated birthdays. When Carona ran for sheriff in 1998 as a reform candidate, Cavallo contributed money and attended the victory celebration. In just the past year, Cavallo figures the sheriff has called him more than 100 times. Despite receiving formal complaints for seven years about bail scams, the sheriff investigated but claimed that he never found any problems.

But their friendship is over. Based in part on the June phone message, Cavallo filed a Sept. 19 legal claim against Carona. He says the sheriff repeatedly demanded a secret pact: they could remain friends if Cavallo wouldn’t call him to testify under oath during Jaramillo’s upcoming corruption trial. Cavallo and Jaramillo say the sheriff fears public exposure of more embarrassing secrets.

“Joe Cavallo informed Mike Carona that he intended to continue to vigorously represent Jaramillo,” the claim asserts. “Mike Carona indicated that he would bring the full weight of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the Orange County district attorney’s office down on Joseph Cavallo and Jaramillo.”

Three weeks later, DA Tony Rackauckas and Carona—who usually don’t get along unless a case is mutually beneficial—smiled. On Oct. 7, Cavallo found himself in court as a defendant facing three felony counts. Two bail bondsmen were also charged. The indictment might force Cavallo to abandon his defense of Jaramillo. If convicted, he could be disbarred and serve a maximum state prison sentence of three years and eight months. He’s free on $25,000 bail.

John Barnett, Cavallo’s attorney and a colleague on the Haidl defense team, said the indictment “looks suspicious.” During the past three years, no lawyer has “ferociously” challenged the DA like Cavallo, according to Barnett.

“There’s at least the appearance of bias,” he said, noting that Cavallo’s indictment “followed a threat by Mike Carona”—the June phone call.

In response, Rackauckas claimed his probe began not with Carona but with a complaint from bail bondsmen in “early 2003.” It’s unclear why the DA waited almost three years to charge Cavallo. But at a press conference, Rackauckas said he was motivated solely by “strong evidence” from “more than two dozen witnesses.”

It’s unlawful for an attorney to pay bail bonds agents to find clients. Prosecutors say Cavallo and several firms created a “tank worker” system in the OC Jail—employing inmates who forcefully recommend certain lawyers and bail bondsmen to other detainees. In return, they allege, the bondsmen paid the tank workers a bounty of up to $1,000 per lead. The DA says his charge is backed by evidence of financial links between Xtreme Bail Bonds of Santa Ana, its clients and Cavallo. How much money was allegedly exchanged is not yet known, although the lawyer did give the owner of Xtreme a $50,000 interest-free loan. Investigators believe a handful of uncharged jail deputies may have also been involved in the scheme.

In defending his case, Rackauckas didn’t mention that Jaramillo, who was also linked to the bail-bonds investigation, and Cavallo have often ridiculed him as sleazy and stupid. But under questioning by reporters, the DA said his detectives focused on Cavallo “fairly quickly” and that his probe into bail-bond scams ended with Cavallo’s indictment.

“The whole thing stinks,” said Cavallo. “I think the public would be shocked if they knew how things work in Orange County.”

Familiar with the inner workings of local law enforcement thanks to his long relationship with the sheriff and former assistant sheriffs Jaramillo and Don Haidl, Cavallo says the county’s justice system is governed by the whims of the men who run it. He believes Carona played a secret role in the DA’s charges after he refused to sabotage the Jaramillo defense.

In cop parlance, Cavallo says the sheriff had motive and opportunity. He points out that Mike Schroeder, Carona’s top political adviser, is also the powerful if unofficial adviser to Rackauckas and that Schroeder’s wife, Susan, is the DA’s media director. During the Haidl rape trials, Susan Schroeder and Cavallo often exchanged hostile words outside the courtroom.

“I know the Schroeders had a hand in my indictment,” Cavallo told the Weekly. “This is the work of ‘The Triangle’—Mike Carona, Mike Schroeder and Tony Rackauckas.”

The comment prompted Mike Schroeder to laugh. “Joe isn’t on my radar screen, and his problems are his own making,” he said. “I’ve had nothing to do with it.”

Cavallo predicts there’ll be future revelations about Schroeder’s influence over local law enforcement but reserved his toughest comments for his old pal, OC’s top cop.

“Mike Carona is a backstabber,” said Cavallo. “He’s the kind of guy who makes the sign of the cross before he eats and then starts talking about how he’s fucking some woman. It’s disgusting. He’s great at convincing people that he’s an innocent, religious guy, but he’s really a snake.”

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