Prosecutor: Ex-Calif. sheriff cheated to get job

Former Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona, who has pleaded not guilty to one count of conspiracy, three counts of mail fraud and two counts of witness tampering, arrives at Federal Court in Santa Ana, Calif., Tuesday, Jan. 6, 2009. Nick Ut / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A former Orange County sheriff gave power and influence to those who helped him win his first election through bribes and kickbacks laundered as campaign contributions, a federal prosecutor said Tuesday in closing arguments.

"In 1998, the citizens of Orange County put their faith and trust in Mike Carona to be their sheriff and what they didn't know when they did was that Mike Carona cheated to win the election," Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Julian told jurors at the former sheriff's corruption trial.

The prosecutor played nearly a dozen excerpts of secretly recorded conversations between Carona and his former assistant sheriff, Don Haidl, who was a star witness for the prosecution at the two-month trial.

Between snippets in which Carona talked about payments being "untraceable," Julian reminded the jury that Haidl testified he helped Carona launder at least $30,000 in campaign contributions in return for the post of assistant sheriff.

"All those men ... who were captains and lieutenants and made years of sacrifices to get a command position, and Don Haidl just walks in without any of the sacrifices — just for money — and he's able to get three stars on his collar," Julian said.

Haidl continued to pay Carona $1,000 monthly, gave him a speed boat, paid for expensive vacations, let Carona use his yacht and airplane and helped bail out Carona's mistress and her foundering law firm with a questionable loan, Julian said.

Defense attorneys, who were to make their closing argument later, tried to show during the trial that Haidl didn't benefit much from his gifts and they contended Haidl lied to save himself. The former sheriff did not testify.

The prosecutor said a tally of Haidl's gifts to Carona over several years totaled $430,279. For that, he was appointed to a department job, got a free badge, police car and gun and led a reserve deputy program that allowed him to hand out law enforcement badges to friends, relatives and associates, Julian told jurors.

"The defense claims this position was worthless. Well, in a free-market economy, something is worth what a willing buyer is willing to pay a willing seller," Julian said.

Carona, 53, has pleaded not guilty to one count of conspiracy, three counts of mail fraud and two counts of witness tampering. The three-term sheriff was indicted in October 2007 and announced his retirement a few months later.

His trial had been packed with soap opera-like descriptions of marital infidelity, government informants, clandestine money drops and a secret closet with recording equipment.

Carona's mistress, Debra Hoffman, has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy, mail fraud and bankruptcy fraud. His wife, Deborah, is charged with a single count of conspiracy. The women will have separate trials.