mont blanc brasil An unsettling portrait of ‘America’s Sheriff’
Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona began breaking the law even before he got elected, according to a federal indictment released Tuesday, engaging in a broad conspiracy to enrich himself and his former mistress by trading access to his department for a steady stream of cash and gifts.
The indictment outlines a scheme that took root in March 1998 and stretched until August, when Carona allegedly tried to keep one of his chief accusers a former assistant sheriff from testifying truthfully to a grand jury. Federal prosecutors also charged Carona’s wife and Debra V. Hoffman, whom they identified in court papers as the sheriff’s “longtime mistress.”
Court documents describe a furious pursuit of money, perquisites and expensive baubles, including more than $200,000 in payments and loans, a boat, a Lake Tahoe vacation, luxury box seats to the World Series, Mont Blanc pens and Ladies’ Cartier watches. Carona, 52, is also accused of helping co conspirators get a piece of a wrongful death settlement that the family of a dead deputy won in a lawsuit.
Carona said in an interview with The Times that he was innocent and would not resign as head of the state’s second largest sheriff’s department. He declined to discussed the specific allegations in the indictment.
“I’m staying because I love the job and I do a good job,” he said. “Most importantly, I have committed no criminal acts.”
Deborah Carona said in a prepared statement: “There is no merit to this indictment, and the government’s strategy of using me as leverage against my husband will not succeed.”
Hoffman could not be reached for comment.
Until he became the target of several state and federal investigations, Carona seemed to be on a path toward political power and prominence. He was dubbed “America’s Sheriff” by television personality Larry King, courted by former White House political guru Karl Rove and groomed as a prospective Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. He gained nationwide recognition for his tough, on camera performance during the 2002 hunt for the kidnapper of 5 year old Samantha Runnion, who was murdered.
The 10 count indictment paints a very different picture, alleging that Carona and close associates began their criminal activities by illegal fundraising to win election in 1998, then, once he was in office, using the powers of the sheriff to enrich themselves.
In all, Carona faces one count of conspiracy, four counts of mail fraud and two counts of tampering with a grand jury witness. His wife is charged with a single conspiracy count. Hoffman is charged with one count of conspiracy,
four counts of mail fraud and three of bankruptcy fraud.
A central figure in the alleged conspiracy is Donald Haidl, an Orange County businessman who formerly owned a business that generated $100 million a year selling surplus police cars and assets seized by law enforcement agencies.
Prosecutors charge that Haidl lined Carona’s pockets with paycheck like regularity. In return, they allege that Carona made Haidl an assistant sheriff, helped his son get preferential treatment in a drug case, and gave badges and guns to relatives and friends.
Haidl, in effect, bought a “Get out of jail free card” from Carona, prosecutors allege.
The sheriff also allegedly exerted influence in an unsuccessful effort to have Haidl’s son tried as a juvenile when he was accused of rape in 2002.
Haidl, who pleaded guilty in a related case, has now turned against Carona and is expected to be a witness against the sheriff. He went undercover and taped conversations with Carona after striking a deal that spared him serious charges.
According to the indictment, the payments Haidl made to Carona and Hoffman ranged from a $110,000 “loan” to Hoffman’s law firm to $1,000 in monthly stipends that Carona received for doing no work as a board director for company tied to Haidl.
Another alleged co conspirator was George Jaramillo, who was also one of Carona’s assistant sheriffs. He, too, has pleaded guilty in the case and has been cooperating with prosecutors.
Lawyers for Haidl and Jaramillo declined to comment on the case.
The indictment provides the following account of the alleged conspiracy:
The scheme began during Carona’s 1998 run for office when Haidl funneled several $1,000 checks to the campaign, each from a different “contributor.” Haidl illegally reimbursed those unnamed donors.
The day before the June 1998 election, Haidl gave a $110,000 cashier’s check to the law firm, which was founded by Hoffman and Jaramillo. After Carona won, Haidl paid for a trip to Lake Tahoe for Carona, Jaramillo and their wives and gave the new sheriff $6,000 in cash.
Shortly after the election, in December 1998, Carona lobbied the county Board of Supervisors to change the law so he could appoint Haidl to the job of assistant sheriff, even though the businessman lacked the required experience.