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Carona gets 66 months in federal prison [Updated]

April 27, 2009 |  4:55 pm

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Former Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona was sentenced this afternoon to 66 months in federal prison and fined $125,000 in a high-profile corruption case.

The corruption case cast a long shadow over the state’s second-largest sheriff’s department and shattered the career of a man many believed had the personality and political chops to carry him to Sacramento, or even Washington.

Carona was convicted in January of witness-tampering after a two-month trial, peppered with accounts of influence peddling within his administration.

[Updated at 5:18 p.m.: Federal Judge Andrew Guilford was harsh as he handed down the sentence following a four-hour hearing during which the former sheriff’s attorneys argued for leniency, saying the media had sensationalized the case.

“Lying will not be tolerated in this courtroom, especially by law enforcement, especially by the leading law enforcement official in the county," said Guilford, who held up a copy of the book “The Importance of Being Honest” and read a passage to Carona.

Carona, dressed in a gray suit and blue necktie, spoke only briefly, thanking Guilford for his “kindness and courtesy.”

“Mr. Carona violated his sworn duty and utterly ignored his responsibilities to the citizens of Orange County by engaging in the conduct that led to his conviction and sentence, conduct that culminated in an agreement to obstruct justice by concocting a story to cover up his corrupt behavior,” said United States Attorney Thomas P. O’Brien in a statement. “Today’s sentencing shows what will happen to elected officals who place their own interests above those of the constituents they are sworn to serve.”

Carona will be held on bail pending appeal until July 24. The judge wanted him to be able to see his son's graduation.]

Witness testimony exposed raw details of his relationship with a longtime mistress, complete with tales of a love nest, Vegas getaways and secret bank accounts. Witnesses talked of bribes handed over in cash-stuffed envelopes, hidden cameras in the Sheriff’s Department and reserve badges for donors and the politically connected.

Jurors, though, acquitted Carona of charges that he misused his office to enrich himself and others by taking cash, bribes and gifts including vacations, World Series tickets and ringside boxing tickets. Jurors said that although they believed Carona had accepted cash and gifts, the statute of limitations prevented them from considering many of the alleged acts underlying the case.

The witness-tampering conviction stems from an August 2007 meeting at a Newport Beach restaurant between Carona and former Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl. At the time, prosecutors were already years into a corruption investigation of Carona’s administration and Haidl was cooperating with investigators by carrying a hidden microphone.

The tapes, played repeatedly during the trial, capture a foul-mouthed Carona making sexist and racist remarks, bragging about being the “most lethal” politician in Orange County and sounding far removed from the man who exuded polished professionalism and spoke with passion at churches and prayer breakfasts.

During one exchange, Haidl is heard explaining to Carona that money he had given him came from a private safe and was untraceable.

“Well, on my end of it, completely untraceable, completely untraceable,” Carona responds.

At other points in the tape, Carona vows that he will deny receiving money from Haidl, and that they can track each other's testimony before the grand jury through their attorneys.

“Your story is my story,” Carona tells Haidl.

Carona’s attorneys maintained that the tapes should have been suppressed as evidence because prosecutors knew Carona was being represented by an attorney at the time. They remain hopeful the conviction will be reversed on appeal.

Carona is the highest-ranking law enforcement official to be prosecuted in Orange County. The case against him was years in the making and built with the help of Haidl and another former assistant, George Jaramillo. Their willingness to turn against Carona and plead guilty to lesser tax-fraud charges was a pivotal break in the lives of three men who once trusted each other so much that they nicknamed themselves “Team Forever.”

Their story began in 1998, when Carona narrowly defeated Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters in the race for sheriff. Jaramillo, a cop turned lawyer, managed Carona’s campaign. Haidl, a high-school dropout who built a fortune auctioning government fleet cars, was a major campaign donor.

Carona weathered early criticism for changing department rules so he could bring Haidl and Jaramillo onto his command staff. Neither had the required experience.

Any questions about Carona’s leadership, however, were put aside in the summer of 2002 when the sheriff became an overnight political star by leading the successful hunt for the man who murdered Samantha Runnion, a 5-year-old girl kidnapped from in front of her Stanton home.

Larry King dubbed him “America’s Sheriff.” The White House made him a homeland security adviser. He was groomed as a prospective candidate for lieutenant governor.

But in rapid-fire order, Carona’s career was reshaped by a series of scandals, from the arrest of Haidl’s son in a high-profile assault to the firing and eventual conviction of Jaramillo on perjury charges.

-- Christine Hanley

Photo: Former Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona leaves the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana with his wife, Deborah. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

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