Image: Michael Carona
Kevork Djansezian  /  AP
Michael Carona, a three-time sheriff of Orange County, Calif., was nicknamed "America's Sheriff" by CNN host Larry King. He's now on trial on corruption charges.
updated 10/29/2008 2:53:50 PM ET 2008-10-29T18:53:50

Six years ago, Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona looked into national television cameras and told the abductor of a 5-year-old girl not to eat and not to sleep: Deputies were right behind him.

The abductor was quickly caught and the way Carona handled the case propelled him into the national spotlight and prompted CNN's Larry King to nickname him "America's sheriff."

On Wednesday, opening statements got under way for the square-jawed, three-time sheriff charged in a federal public corruption case. He is charged with conspiracy, mail fraud and witness tampering. Carona, 53, has vigorously denied the charges.

Also charged are his alleged mistress, who has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy, mail fraud and bankruptcy fraud; and his wife, who has pleaded not guilty to a single count of conspiracy.

Deborah Carona will stand trial after her husband, but his alleged mistress, an attorney, is being tried with him.

The trial is expected to last two months and a series of conversations secretly recorded by one of Carona's former assistant sheriffs and closest friends promises to figure prominently in the case.

$700,000 in bribes alleged
In court papers, the government accuses Carona, who has since stepped down, and his friends of accepting nearly $700,000 in cash, gifts, kickbacks and questionable loans in exchange for political favors beginning in 1998.

Prosecutors say many of those bribes came from Don Haidl, a wealthy businessman.

In exchange, authorities say, Carona made Haidl an assistant sheriff and put him in charge of a new reserve deputy program that allowed him to hand out badges and concealed weapons permits in a pay-to-play scheme.

Haidl pleaded guilty last year to tax fraud and agreed to become an undercover informant.

Prosecutors expect to present Haidl as a witness, as well as another former assistant sheriff and an attorney who allegedly provided kickbacks for legal referrals.

It's unclear if Carona will testify in his own defense, and his legal team has declined to comment on the case or the secret recordings.

Prosecution tactics questioned
In legal filings, however, Carona's attorneys argue their client was a dedicated public servant who was targeted by overzealous prosecutors with a flawed case.

They also question the tactics of prosecutors who provided phony grand jury subpoena attachments to help Haidl get Carona to talk and accuse prosecutors of presenting grand jury witnesses who gave potentially false testimony.

A judge rejected a defense motion to suppress the tapes but did bar some portions where Carona makes sexually explicit and racially offensive remarks.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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