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Ex-Sheriff Michael Carona's Corruption Trail started today

by Michael Webster Investigative Reporter Friday, Oct. 31, 2008 at 3:04 AM 949 494-7121


Michael Carona former Orange county sheriff also known early in his career as America's sheriff started his corruption trail today with opening statements from both the prosecution and defense counsel.

Carona setting at the defense table with defense attorneys, Jeffrey Rawitz and Brian Sun along with his mistress and co-defendant Debra Hoffman. They appeared to be listening carefully as prosecutors and defense lawyers presented their very different versions to the jury as to the facts in the long awaited trail in a packed courtroom representing mostly reporters, friends and family of the lawyers and other members of the U.S. attorney's office.

The early morning overflow crowd watched the proceedings from a separate courtroom on the 6th floor at the federal court house in Santa Anna California.

Deborah Carona the ex-sheriff's wife whom is also charged in the case, but goes to trial after her husband, watched the proceedings from a seat not far from the defense table.

First in the afternoon proceedings, Hoffman's attorney Sylvia Torres-Guillen told jurors that charges were brought against her client only so the prosecution could show that “America's Sheriff” had an extramarital affair.

“They dragged her in here because it makes their story that much sexier,” Torres-Guillen said.

Torres-Guillen pointed out to the jurors that Hoffman failed to become wealthy through her association with Carona, but fell into debt because of her law partnership with the soon to be Assistant sheriff George Jaramillo, who neglected their office when he began working with Carona. The firm obtained a 0,000 loan from Haidl and Hoffman got about ,000 as severance from Haidl when she left the firm – money she always intended to repay, her attorney said. Jaramillo later indicted and convicted himself and is expected to testify against Michael Carona.

Hoffman failed to disclose the money in bankruptcy documents because she got bad legal advice, Torres-Guillen said, adding that there is no conspiracy and that her client should not even be here.

The first witness called by the government was Mark Dilullo, a pilot and owner of his own company in Rancho Cucamonga. He testified that he had a long standing relationship with the then sheriff Carona and with Don Haidle the government's star witness in the case and told the jury that he knew both men before and after Carona won office.

Dilullo describing himself as a friend and business associate of Haidl's said he or his company flew Haidl and friends to many different places and said he also had worked for Haidle.

Dilullo livened up the court room when he testified under oath that Assistant Sheriff Haidle ask him to asked trusted close friends, relatives and associates to illegally donate money to Carona's 1998 campaign. He himself, parents and a brother who is a officer in the U.S. Marines stationed at Camp Pendleton. The total amount donated was about ,000 in checks. He also got three other friends to donate ,000 each in checks.

Dilullo stated on the stand that Haidl with Carona's knowledge reimbursed him in cash for the contributions. Dilullo said he then gave cash back to those who donated to Carona's campaign.

Dilullo also pointed out that Haidl paid for Carona to use private planes for personal and campaign junkets to Lake Tahoe California and Las Vegas Nevada.

At Haidle's request Dilullo said he arranged for a large campaign banner to be flown over Orange County beaches during the Carona campaign. He told the court room that Haidl introduced him to Carona over the phone, and that Carona also ordered him to have the banner flown over the home of Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters – who was Carona's leading opponent in that election.

Dilullo testified that Haidl gave him ,000 in cash to pay for the banner, the pilot and aircraft.

"Carona said he did not want anyone to know about that. Dilullo said.

Dilullo told juries that Carona took Haidl's plane on trips to Las Vegas, including one time with his mistress Debra Hoffman. He said both Carona and Haidl told him to make sure Hoffman's name was left off any records of the flights. On still another trip to Vegas at the opening of the new Bellagio's casino,

Dilullo said he saw Haidl hand Carona between ,000 and ,000 worth of casino chips and still more chips to Corona's wife Deborah, at the same casino.

Its alleged Carona illegally won office in 1998 after accepting several thousand dollars in campaign contributions, then doled out favors to political supporters who bribed him with cash and gifts, prosecutors told jurors.

Carona's defense attorney dismissed the allegations, describing the government's probe as a “relentless assault” based on lying informants willing to sully the decorated lawman in exchange for lighter sentences.

Called by the LA Times as the highest-profile public corruption case ever prosecuted in Orange County. The corruption case is before the Honorable U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Guilford in court room 10 C.

The indictment accuses Carona of using his public office to enrich himself, his wife and his former mistress and co-defendant Debra Hoffman – a Newport Beach lawyer who told authorities she had an affair with Carona since 1998.

At the center of the government's case is multimillionaire businessman Donald Haidl, who helped bankroll Carona's 1998 campaign and was appointed Carona's assistant sheriff even though he lacked the training and experience for the job.

The alleged scheme was launched in 1997 when Carona's campaign manager, George Jaramillo, arranged for Haidl and Carona to meet. Haidl saw the pair as a perfect political match: Carona the preacher man and Jaramillo the pickpocket, Sagel said. At the meeting, Carona promised Haidl a job as an assistant sheriff, full access to the sheriff's resources and a "Get out of jail free card," Sagel said.

"Don Haidl was looking to buy power," Sagel said. "Mike Carona and George Jaramillo were selling it."

The aspiring sheriff and Jaramillo told Haidl that if he put up enough money to win the election "you, Don Haidl, will own the Sheriff's Department," Sagel said.

With Carona's knowledge, Sagel said, Haidl illegally reimbursed donors to Carona's 1998 campaign, a scheme that allowed him to exceed the county's ,000 limit on campaign contributions. After Carona won the election, the prosecutor said, Haidl paid for the sheriff's vacation to Lake Tahoe, slipping him thousands of dollars in casino chips, allowed him unlimited use of his yacht and private jet, and paid him ,000 a month in cash -- money the sheriff used primarily to entertain his mistress.

The prosecutor's most damaging part of his case is the secretly recorded conversations between Haidl and Carona in which the two men discussed the "untraceable" cash bribes. Prosecutors allege that Haidl paid Carona at least ,000 in cash, much of it changing hands during secret meetings in Haidl's kitchen, and that in August 2007, Haidl and Carona discussed the bribes as Haidl wore a wire for prosecutors.

"Unless there was a pinhole in your ceiling that evening, it never . . . happened," Carona can be heard telling Haidl during the conversation played for jurors. "And that part is why I sleep real well at night."

Sagel told jurors that the word pinhole was a reference to a hidden camera and that Carona was aware of pinhole cameras because he had ordered four installed in his Santa Ana office.

Haidl and Jaramillo have pleaded guilty to tax evasion charges and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. Their cooperation will be considered when they are sentenced. Sun said the two men have sold prosecutors "a bill of goods," and will falsely implicate Carona to win leniency.

Prosecutors also allege the ex-sheriff was directly involved in at least 0,000 in payments from Haidl to himself, Hoffman and Jaramillo.

The witnesses' credibility is particularly important, Sun said, because there are no financial records to support allegations that Haidl bribed Carona, making this a "he said, she said" case.

"They're going to have to have porters to carry in all the baggage they're bringing to the stand," Sun said.

Another of Carona's former friends who aided prosecutors is attorney Joseph Cavallo. Cavallo once represented Haidl's son, Greg Haidl, in a high-profile sex assault trial. Carona routed a wrongful-death lawsuit – involving the death of a deputy – to Cavallo, prosecutors say. Cavallo isn't charged in the case.

Early in the proceedings, Assistant U.S. Attorney Brett Sagel characterized the probe as “the case of two Mike Caronas.”

Carona was known as a “bright, charismatic man who went from underdog candidate in 1998 to the sheriff of Orange County'' Sagel said. The ex-sheriff, once the highest ranking law enforcement official in Orange County, controlled 4,200 employees and managed an agency with a budget of half billion dollars, he added.

“He was, according to Larry King, America's Sheriff,'' the prosecutor continued, as jurors looked at a photo of Carona in his decorated uniform.

But then there was a “secret Mike Carona,'' Sagel said.

A photo of Carona, Haidl and Jaramillo, all standing outside Haidl's private plane, flashed on a television screen not far from the jurors.

" ‘We're going to be so rich. We're going to make so much money,' ” Sagel said. “These are the words of secret Mike Carona, defendant Mike Carona.”

“The Caronas, the Jaramillos and the Haidls became extremely close,'' Sagel told jurors. “They would spend holidays together … (and discuss) constantly the money they would make when they ran the sheriff's department.”

Sagel played excerpts from the secret recordings, including an exchange in which the ex-Sheriff used a racial epithet to refer to blacks. Carona also refers to gifts, saying they are “completely untraceable.”

Carona's attorney, Brian Sun, painted the former sheriff as a good public servant who turned down lucrative jobs in the private sector. He characterized the prosecution's alleged “bribes,'' as the “exchange of gifts among friends.”

“Mike Carona is going to get his day in court finally,'' Sun continued. “His reputation is in tatters ... it has been humiliating for him to have his private life exposed like this by people who have an ax to grind."

Far from trying to “feather his nest,” Carona tried to reimburse people for gifts, such as World Series and Oscar De La Hoya boxing tickets, Sun said. There is no evidence of cash payments, Sun added.

Carona also avoided using his position to influence others, Sun said. For example, Sun said that Haidl turned to Jaramillo for help in getting his son, Greg, tried as a juvenile on a rape charge – not Carona.

“Mike Carona is the victim of the worst kind of negative campaign ad you can get,” Sun said.

Sun said the prosecution selectively chose sound bites, particularly the racial epithet in which Carona is repeating a phrase first used by Haidl, to inflame jurors.

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