Carona Guilty of Witness Tampering

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"America's Sheriff" is a convicted felon.

Ex-Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona was found not guilty of multiple conspiracy counts and one witness tampering count in Santa Ana federal court today, but he was still found guilty of another witness tampering count. According to federal prosecutors, 53-year-old Carona faces a sentence of zero to 10 years in prison on that count after a yet-to-be scheduled sentencing hearing.

First elected sheriff in 1998, Carona is the highest ranking law enforcement official ever prosecuted in Orange County--and now the highest ranking convicted felon.

The Weekly's R. Scott Moxley, who was in the federal courthouse, says Carona, dapper in a charcoal suit and red tie, was openly nervous before a court clerk read the 11-man, one-woman jury's verdict, then he sighed, sobbed and threw his head back as his fate became known.

His wife, Deborah Carona, cried out loud and sobbed after the third "not guilty" verdict was read, according to another court witness. Carona's mistress, Debra Hoffman, was not present. She has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy, mail fraud and bankruptcy fraud, while Deborah Carona faces a single count of conspiracy when they are tried together. Ten minutes after the verdict was read, Carona looked back at his wife in the audience and shot her a big smile, according to Moxley, who added the "Alice in Wonderland group" of Carona supporters glanced over with glee at the press corps, obviously feeling victorious. Carona, who was once nicknamed "America's Sheriff" by TV's Larry King, eventually gave hugs all around to his wife and defense team, with lead defense attorney Jeffrey Rawitz receiving a particularly long, warm embrace.

But federal prosecutor Brett Sagel dampened the mood when he requested new conditions be placed on Carona's release pending sentencing "because he's now a convicted felon."

Sagel requested that Carona be barred from carrying a firearm, that he be forbidden from leaving the U.S. District Court area, that he stay out of train depots or bus and plane terminals, that he remove all firearms from his home and that he allow the U.S. Marshal's Office to serach him at any time to make sure he is abiding by the conditions.

Over the defense's objections, Judge Andrew Guilford agreed to all the conditions, saying he took them "very seriously" and "expects honesty" from Carona as he remains free until sentencing. 

The jury deliberated for six days before the verdict was read just before noon: not guilty of conspiracy, not guilty of mail fraud, not guilty of one count of witness tampering and guilty on one count of witness tampering. The guilty count centers on the last of three secretly recorded conversations at the Bayside restaurant in Newport Beach between Carona and former Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl, who was wearing a wire for the FBI and IRS, on Aug. 13, 2007.

But that creates an opening for an appeal by the defense, Moxley notes: "It seems on the surface how could you convict him of tampering with a witness if he did not commit any crimes." The defense throughout the trial accused prosecutors of misconduct, so an appeal is more than likely.

The verdict was reached shortly after one juror reportedly sent a note asking to speak with Guilford about jury instructions, one of a half-dozen notes sent to the judge by the panel. Guilford responded with a note saying he could not talk with a single juror.

Carona was first indicted by the federal grand jury on multiple public corruption charges in October 2007. The trial was filled with scandalous details of betrayal, money drops and Carona's extramarital affairs--details that in many cases were first printed in the Weekly. Secret recordings, played to jurors, revealed so-called born-again Christian Carona was quite the potty mouth given his many profanity-laced remarks.

The feds alleged that as early as 1998, the year he was elected, Carona sought the help of multimillionaire businessman Haidl to launder at least $30,000 in campaign contributions. Once elected, Carona named Haidl an assistant sheriff, giving him a government car, gun, badge, a "get-out-of-jail-free" card and control over the reserve deputy program, which let Haidl dole out badges to his friends, relatives and business associates.

The government claimed Haidl continued the bribes by paying the three-term lawman $1,000 a month, giving him free luxurious trips and tailored suits, loaning him his yacht and private jet and bailing out his mistress with a questionable loan. All tolled, Haidl's gifts to Carona were alleged to have exceeded $430,000.

Haidl and another assistant sheriff, George Jaramillo, became government informants after being named unindicted co-conspirators in the grand jury indictment against Carona. The ex-assistant sheriffs reached separate plea deals.

Carona's defense team, which claimed they represented the ex-sheriff for free, wondered aloud in closing arguments why Jaramillo was never called to testify. During trial, defense attorneys blamed Jaramillo for many of the ex-sheriff's alleged misdeeds.

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Read the Weekly's Carona Archives here.

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