Carona's Fate Now in Jurors' Hands

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Jurors have begun deliberating in the federal corruption trial of former Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona. The panel was given the case around 12:15 p.m. Thursday.

Jurors went home Thursday afternoon without reaching a verdict.

On Thursday morning, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brett Sagel said Carona and two assistant sheriffs he hired were already partners in crime by the time he was sworn in as sheriff in 1998.

Wealthy businessman Don Haidl, who eventually cooperated with investigators by wearing a wire, and George Jaramillo, a former mid-level Garden Grove police officer who did not testify, were hired by Carona as his top assistants. Haidl said he paid monthly bribes to the Carona, and Jaramillo allegedly collected illegal payments for the sheriff.

Sagel asked jurors why Carona, who had more than 20 years in law enforcement before becoming sheriff, did not hire seasoned law enforcement professionals as his assistants.

"Why? Because they already started their criminal conduct together," Sagel said. "They were already partners in crime. They were already co-conspirators."

Sagel noted that numerous witnesses had impugned the integrity of Jaramillo.

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"How many witnesses told you what a horrible person George Jaramillo is?" Sagel asked. "You heard a guy who worked for him call him Satan, but that's the guy (Carona) brought on. You never heard one explanation why Jaramillo became assistant sheriff."

Sagel said that Haidl, who was a key prosecution witness, was given full police powers, although he had no law enforcement training experience.

"Why does a wealthy Newport Beach businessman step into that position?" he asked. "Don Haidl told you they were partners in crime" and that "he bought his position."

Haidl testified that he laundered $30,000 in campaign contributions for Carona's initial 1998 run for sheriff, and, for a period of four years, paid the former sheriff $1,000 a month in cash.  

In his closing argument Wednesday, defense attorney Jeffrey Rawitz told jurors that the secretly recorded conversations touted as key evidence fail to prove Carona took bribes.

The tape recordings were made after Haidl pleaded guilty to a tax charge and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

Rawitz said that during one meeting at a Newport Beach restaurant on Aug. 13, 2007, Carona seems to declare that prosecutors will never be able to undercover evidence of the cash bribes.

But, he added, Haidl skillfully manipulated the conversation to make it seem that the men discussed hiding cash payments.

Carona and Haidl were really talking about a Searay boat that Haidl gave Carona for a birthday present, Rawitz said -- hardly a stream of bribes reaching several hundred thousand dollars.

Rawitz conceded that Carona did not declare the boat, but also insisted it was not a bribe.

Rawitz said it makes no sense that Carona would want to throw away his entire career for $1,000 in monthly payments, pointing out that he was a "rising star" in politics after the arrest of a suspect in the high-profile sexual assault and murder of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion in 2002.

Carona is named in a 10-count indictment along with his wife, Deborah Carona, and long-time girlfriend, Debra Hoffman. The women are being tried separately.

Carona, his wife and ex-mistress are all charged with conspiracy. Carona and Hoffman also face four counts of mail fraud. Separately, Carona is charged with two counts of witness tampering and Hoffman with three counts of bankruptcy fraud.

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