SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Ex-Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona sought to run the department by his own rules after using a multi-millionaire businessman to illegally bankroll his election, a former assistant sheriff testified Wednesday in Carona's corruption trial.
But the tight inner circle Carona forged by naming as assistant sheriffs Don Haidl -- who previously testified he laundered campaign funds and funneled thousands of dollars in payments, bribes and gifts to Carona -- and George Jaramillo began to unravel as Carona and Jaramillo made enemies with a high-handed approach to running the department, Haidl testified.
Haidl said that when he met Carona, who then headed the Marshal's Office, he was behind Santa Ana police Chief Paul Walters in the sheriff's race. Walters was popular with other law enforcers in the county and was the frontrunner, Haidl said.
"He (Carona) was fearful he would lose the election," Haidl said. "He was afraid of what would happen to him if Walters won. He said he wasn't going to have a job. He was very, very worried."
Haidl, the government's star witness, pleaded guilty to a single federal tax count and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, which included wearing a wire to secretly record conversations with Carona.
Haidl said that for his help in getting Carona elected, the new sheriff conferred on him the status of fully sworn peace officer, even though the multi- millionaire businessman lacked law enforcement experience and had not passed Peace Officers Standards and Training requirements.
The title came with a gun, handcuffs, ammunition and a black Ford Crown Victoria equipped with lights, siren and a safety package that was standard equipment, Haidl testified.
Haidl said he wore three stars that indicated he was second in command as an assistant sheriff.
He testified that was also told that he would be paid "professional courtesy" by other law enforcement officers, and that, in light of his position, "nobody's going to pop an assistant sheriff for a deuce" -- a reference to a drunken driving arrest.
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The perks flowed both ways, Haidl said, because "I made him sheriff ..."
Carona got Haidl's sister, Peggy, appointed to the Orange County Fair Board by lobbying then-Gov. Gray Davis "as a favor to me," Haidl testified.
Haidl's sister, Maura, who was incarcerated in the Orange County Jail when their mother died, was able to leave the jail toattend the funeral, Haidl said.
Other favors followed, he said.
When Haidl's then-17-year-old son was accused of sexually assaulting an unconscious 16-year-old girl in July 2002, Jaramillo went to Haidl's ex-wife's home in San Bernardino County and was there when sheriff's deputies and members of the Newport Beach Police Department came to talk to the teen.
That later prompted a complaint from then-Newport Beach police Chief Bob McDonell, but Carona refused to launch a formal investigation, Haidl said.
Carona sent a letter to McDonell, telling him that his account differed from Jaramillo's and Haidl's and that Carona would take no action, Haidl said.
Carona maintained that "George did a good job" during his visit to the younger Haidl's home, Haidl testified.
As prosecutors weighed charges to bring against Greg Haidl and two other boys -- and whether to charge them as juveniles or adults -- Carona and the elder Haidl discussed a meeting between Jaramillo and Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas, the witness said.
Haidl testified that he, Carona and Jaramillo met to discuss "how to approach Tony Rackauckas," and determined that Jaramillo would approach the D.A. "to take a look and see if (Greg Haidl) could get charged as a juvenile."
Later that month, Carona reported back to Haidl that Jaramillo "had pissed Tony off," and that Rackauckas took his conversation with Jaramillo "as a threat," Haidl said.
He testified that Carona told him a little while later that "the feds are involved because George threatened Tony."
Haidl said that when his son was out of custody on bail, he was questioned by deputies in San Clemente, when, while skateboarding with other youths, a small amount of marijuana was found in the car that they had been in.
"I received a phone call at home from George Jaramillo that they had Greg and some other kids stopped in San Clemente," Haidl said, adding that Jaramillo had also been in contact with Carona.
The witness said Jaramillo told him that he had taken "care of it," adding that he also got another call "from an unknown deputy."
"I was informed that they placed Greg in a patrol unit and drove him to his mother's house," Haidl said.
Once the younger Haidl was charged, Carona assigned the Dignitary Protection Unit to guide his father through the back corridors of the Newport Beach courthouse, where his son made his appearances, so that he "wouldn't have to deal with the press," the elder Haidl said.
Haidl testified that Carona placed supporters and potential supporters on a "friends" list of reservists -- the department that Haidl oversaw -- but that at least 86 of them ran into problems because of delays in background checks and because some had not met training qualifications as reservists.
A POST audit flagged three individuals in particular, including the owner of a restaurant that Carona frequented, Haidl testified.
But he said Carona insisted that all 86 would stay because POST "isn't going to tell me what to do. I'm the sheriff. We'll do it my way."
Carona began talking about firing Jaramillo, Haidl said.
One day Carona told Haidl that "George was going outside the circle and getting money from others ... He felt that was going to be a problem ... that was going to get us into trouble."
Haidl said he was not in favor of Carona going back on his word that when the time came, he would move up the political ladder mid-term, allowing Jaramillo to step into the sheriff's position then run as an incumbent.
But there was also fear that that Jaramillo would make trouble.
"George is a very uncontrollable person when he is upset," Haidl said, adding there was worry that Jaramillo would go to the attorney general, the district attorney and federal authorities, as well as the media.
"He wasn't going to go away easy," the witness said.
The real danger, Haidl testified, was that "George had been in on everything. He knew everything there was to know."
"I told (Carona) that George is uncontrollable," Haidl said, and would "burn the forest down with all our houses in it."
Jaramillo, who, like Haidl, pleaded guilty to federal tax counts and agreed to cooperate in the investigation against Carona, is also expected to testified at the trial.
Carona, his wife, Deborah and attorney Debra Hoffman, the ex-sheriff's long-term mistress, are accused in a 10-count federal grand jury indictment of selling the perks of the office for hundreds of thousands of dollars from cash and gifts.
Carona has pleaded innocent and has insisted he'll be acquitted.