"America's Sheriff" Indicted
If you believe the federal indictment unsealed yesterday -- drawn largely from the testimony against him of his two closest supporters, who ratted him out on their own plea deals -- even on that day, this smiling, warm future "America's Sheriff" was fully corrupted, sunk in a conspiracy to use his new office to accumulate illegal wealth and intoxicating power.
And it wasn't just Carona. It was also his senior aides, his wife ... and his long-time mistress! Carona always positioned himself as a strong Christian, but apparently not that strong:
He didn't seem like that kind of person back when I met him. He had a gentle disposition, but it was evident there was a lot of strength behind it. He seemed very centered and straightforward, even humble.
In an indictment unsealed today, federal investigators charged the county’s top lawman with seven felony counts for using his elected office to “enrich” himself and offer “favors to friends who paid bribes.” Carona illegally accepted money, high-priced gifts, tickets to exclusive sporting events and loans for his wife and for his “longtime mistress,” the indictment said.
Debbie Carona, along with Debra Hoffman, a Newport Beach attorney and investor identified in the indictment as Carona’s mistress, were also charged along with the sheriff. All three face conspiracy counts while Hoffman faces additional charges that she aided Carona and also committed bankruptcy fraud.
Carona, 52, also faces two counts of witness tampering, allegedly for attempting to persuade a former assistant sheriff to lie to the federal grand jury. (OC Register)
I recall him saying that while he was sheriff, crime would drop dramatically in OC ... but he would have little or nothing to do with it. He went on to explain how demographic trends guaranteed that crime would drop because the last population peak had either weaned itself from crime or was in prison, and the next population peak was still in elementary school. "I'm just lucky enough to be sheriff at a time when the population of 17 to 25 year-olds will be relatively low," he said.
I thought, "How refreshing -- a politician that's not taking credit that's not due."
Several years later, I reminded him of this conversation and he laughed, surprised that I remembered it so well. And once again, he gave the credit to demographics, because his prediction had turned out to be correct.
Among the most sordid of Carona's inside circle was Don Haidl -- you may remember that last name even if you live far from here -- who was Carona's money man, as summarized here by the Daily Pilot:
Corona del Mar businessman Don Haidl provided thousands of dollars in illegal payments to Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona in exchange for an assistant sheriff job and special treatment for his family and friends, according to an indictment unsealed on Tuesday.That bit about "special treatment for his family" came in handy when Don Haidl's son Greg was among a group of young men charged with drugging and gang-raping a 16 year old girl. Here's the OC Weekly's Haidl Gang Rape Archive for anyone who's interested.) The case banged around forever before the three assailants finally got convicted in March 2005, and there was plenty of opportunity to point fingers at the Sheriff's office for being less than aggressive.
The indictment of Carona — filed in October 2005 in United States District Court — alleges that Haidl repeatedly made payments to Carona that the sheriff failed to declare, made additional payments to a woman identified as Carona’s mistress, and rewarded Carona for his support by placing him on a previously nonexistent board of directors for a company owned by Haidl’s uncle.
I agreed. By then I'd seen enough of old school cronyism from Carona. His glory days, when he performed magnificently during the nationally covered, and ultimately tragic, search for Samantha Runion, were far behind him even then.
Today, he says he will be exonerated. Perhaps. But not in the eyes of the people who elected a guy we thought was straight -- but even then wasn't.
If you want to follow this story in a juicy way, well-written way, I suggest you set up a feed for Frank Mickadeit's column in the OC Register. Frank's a long-time acquaintance and Coto neighbor, and has a wicked pen. Here's his lead today, that captures my feelings exactly:
The most shocking part of the indictment against Sheriff Mike Carona is just how well-planned the feds say the conspiracy was. If you believe the charges, what the sheriff did could never be mistaken for mere technical violations of campaign-finance law.Photo: OC Register
The overall sense I get from the indictment is that this was no case of a politician becoming arrogant with power over a period of years in office and gradually acquiring a sense of entitlement. That's commonplace. These charges, however, emanate from alleged activities dating back to before Carona even took office.