SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Ex-Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona tarnished his office by accepting bribes, gifts and other payments, a prosecutor told a federal court jury Wednesday, but a defense attorney said the former lawman was a victim of a vicious vendetta by a fired member of his command circle.
Defense attorney Brian Sun said Carona took office in 1998 and gained support and popularity with ideas to take the Sheriff's Department into the 21st century. But he earned the wrath of George Jaramillo when he fired the assistant sheriff in 2004 for misconduct, Sun said.
"He fired a guy and invited retaliation," Sun said. "George Jaramillo goes crazy. He decides he's going to go after Mike Carona."
Sun said the prosecution's corruption case against Carona is "basically a negative campaign ad," and said Assistant U.S. Attorney Brett Sagel's opening statement to jurors was "fraught with false statements and distorts."
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"We think you will conclude the government's case does not hold together," Suns said. "The case on which this house of cards is built will ultimately crumble. He served the citizens of Orange County ... with duty and honor," Sun said.
Carona, 53, is standing trial along with his longtime mistress, attorney Debra Hoffman, 42. Carona's wife of 28 years, Deborah Carona, 57, was also named in the 10-count federal grand jury indictment, but she is being tried separately.
Carona, his wife and Hoffman are each charged with one count of conspiracy. Carona and Hoffman also face four counts of mail fraud, while Carona is charged with two counts of witness tampering. Hoffman is charged with three counts of bankruptcy fraud.
Carona and Hoffman face a maximum sentence of more than 100 years in prison and $2 million in fines. Deborah Carona faces five years behind bars, if convicted, and a $250,000 fine.
Sagel told jurors the former sheriff had one persona he presented to residents of Orange County and another to his colleagues -- Jaramillo and former Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl, a man with a ninth-grade education who became a multimillionaire businessman.
"This is a case of the two Mike Caronas," Sagel said.
One was the sheriff who appeared "bright, articulate and charismatic," and the other was the Carona who told his colleagues when he took office, "We're going to be rich. We're going to be so rich."
Sagel said Carona deprived the public of its right to honest services by taking part in a six-year scheme that began with Haidl laundering campaign contributions before he was even elected.
Sun disputed that claim, saying Haidl "raised some money and did so illegally, without telling Mr. Carona," but the amount from him "wasn't material. It was less than 10 percent."
Sagel said secret recordings made by Haidl when he was cooperating with federal investigators belie Carona's public image of a hard-on-crime sheriff.
Sagel told jurors that as the federal probe into Carona grew, he frequently huddled with Haidl to coordinate stories they could tell investigators to head them off.
"Don Haidl can blow the cover off of everything they did together," Sagel told the 11-man, one-woman jury, playing them portions of a secretly recorded tape. "Don Haidl will tell you what happened and, more important, the 'secret' Mike Carona will tell you what happened."
To neutralize Jaramillo after the firing, Carona leaked information about him to the Orange County District Attorney's Office that led to his conviction and serving a year in jail for perjury and misuse of public funds, Sagel said.
Carona also leaked information on another confidante, attorney Joe Cavallo, when Cavallo became Jaramillo's attorney on the state court case, Sagel said. Cavallo ended up convicted on a bail-bonds kick-back scheme and served his time on house arrest.
Then it was Carona and Haidl standing tight in the face of the federal investigation into the sheriff's office, Sagel said. But both Jaramillo and Haidl agreed in March 2007 to plead guilty to federal tax charges.
Carona, who was once called "America's sheriff" by CNN's Larry King, was approached in July 2007 by Haidl, who was wearing a wire and guiding conversations according to the specifications of prosecutors. Those taped conversations are expected to be key evidence during Carona's trial.
According to a prosecution trial memo, the alleged scheme began around March 1998 and lasted until about March 2004.
They say Carona accepted some $350,000 in cash and gifts and in return appointed Haidl to the post of assistant sheriff despite his lack of background in law enforcement, giving Haidl broad access to the powers of the office.
Sun insisted that Haidl's role was to expand the department's reserves, opening it up to private citizens with talents to help the department. Haidl never received a salary or benefits package as an assistant sheriff, Sun said.
But Sagel said Haidl believed he held a "get out of jail free" card that would help his minor son, Greg Haidl, benefit with lighter treatment from prosecutors in a 2002 gang sexual assault case. But he was tried as an adult, convicted and sentenced to six years in state prison.
Sagel also said Carona expanded the department's concealed weapons permit program and handed out "badges" to benefit his friends and supporters.
Prosecutors contend that Carona, who outwardly portrayed himself as a family man, set up plans for a future together with Hoffman.
According to a prosecution trial memo, Hoffman incorporated Bersagliere of Pacoima Inc. "as an entity to create a 'nest egg' for her and defendant Carona."
The source of the funds, prosecutor said, was Haidl.
But Hoffman's attorney, Deputy Federal Public Defender Sylvia Torres- Guillen, said Bersagliere was an investment group Hoffman started with a friend.
"In a matter of months it was gone," she said. "She is not a good investor."
Haidl also gave a $110,000 loan to Hoffman and Jaramillo to revive their law firm.
Torres-Guillen said the money initially came from a bank loan that took so long to process that Haidl put in the money as a "bridge" loan. When the bank funded the loan, Haidl was repaid, she said.
But the loan went into default, Haidl lost a CD he put up for collateral, and "now the firm owed Haidl $110,000," but Hoffman always intended to pay the money back, she said.
Torres-Guillen told jurors that her client was "dragged" into the case by prosecutors who only wanted to get Carona.
Torres-Guillen said Hoffman, who was married, met Carona before he was elected and fell in love with him.
The case, she said, "is about dragging her into this courtroom so that they can talk about America's sheriff having an affair."
"Miss Hoffman is not one of the boys," Torres-Guillen said, and "she should not be collateral damage."
Her client knows nothing about Carona's dealings, the lawyer said.
Torres-Guillen insisted there was no fraud connected with Hoffman's bankruptcy filing, and that prosecutors misinterpreted complicated bankruptcy rules when they brought charges.
Sun conceded that Carona "had some moral failings. He had a relationship outside his marriage ... but that's not a crime."
"We're going to ask you to decide if he withheld honest services," Sun said. "At the end of the day, you get to decide, under our system of justice, that Mike Carona is the victim of the worst conspiracy you can get. His reputation is sullied for no good reason. You'll send a statement back to those who sold a bill of goods to the government that you're rejecting" it.
Sun said prosecutors will not be able to produce any evidence that Haidl paid Carona and Jaramillo $1,000 a month in cash bribes between Carona's election and July 2002. He said that every trip and gift Haidl allegedly bestowed on Carona was reimbursed, and the defense will present copies of checks to prove it.
"They'll be no documented evidence to establish any criminality," Sun said. "It's really a `he said-she said."'
"We believe you'll concur in the absurdity of these allegations," Sun said.
Carona resigned in January to prepare for the trial.