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November 01, 2007
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So. Cal. sheriff faces judge on corruption charges

With wife and alleged mistress, Mike Carona hears charges. A federal magistrate sets bail at $20,000 each for the lawman and his wife, and $10,000 for his mistress.

By Garrett Therolf, Christine Hanley and H.G. Reza
Los Angeles Times

ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — As Michael S. Carona sat handcuffed in federal court Wednesday, Orange County officials faced the problem of fighting crime while their sheriff fights corruption charges.

Carona's federal indictment has made some county officials uncomfortable with him remaining in office, but they said they had few options. County Supervisor John Moorlach proposed a ballot measure Wednesday that would allow the board to remove Carona, but it would take four months to get it before voters.

Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona, second right, holding his wife Deborah's hand, second left, and accompanied by members of the defense team Jordana Boag, left, and Andrea Jacobs leave the Ronald Reagan Federal Building in Santa Ana , Calif., Wednesday. (AP Photo/Kevork Djansezian)
California law allows Carona to remain in office unless he is convicted, although only two elected sheriffs in recent California history have done so -- and both ultimately resigned.

Carona, his wife, Deborah, and his alleged mistress, Debra V. Hoffman -- all named in a sweeping public corruption indictment -- were free on bail Wednesday after waiting several hours in a courthouse holding cell for their hearing. Magistrate Robert Block told them not to leave the country and to give the court 48 hours notice before traveling out of the state.

The indictment charges that Carona engaged in a broad conspiracy to enrich himself, his wife and Hoffman by trading access to his department for cash and gifts.

The indictment says the scheme took root in March 1998, before he was elected, and stretched until this August, when Carona allegedly tried to persuade one of his chief accusers -- former Assistant Sheriff Donald Haidl -- to lie to the grand jury.

Haidl and former Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo, also charged as part of the conspiracy, have brokered plea agreements with prosecutors.

Throughout the hearing at the federal courthouse in Santa Ana, Carona held his chin high. His wife had a vacant stare. Both kept their cuffed hands in their laps as the charges against them were read. Attorneys turned the pages of documents for the sheriff and placed reading glasses on Deborah Carona's nose. Hoffman sat quietly behind them.

The two sides argued mainly about whether Carona should give up his gun. Prosecutors said he shouldn't be allowed to carry a weapon because the allegations against him include witness tampering. Carona's attorney said the sheriff needed to be armed because he had been threatened many times during his nine years in office, with some of those threats suspected of coming from within his own department.

In turning down the government's request, Block restricted Carona from contact with any potential witnesses in the case.

Carona, Deborah Carona and Hoffman are scheduled to enter their pleas Monday. Block set bail for the Caronas at $20,000 each and at $10,000 for Hoffman.

Hoffman, a lawyer herself, asked the court to provide her a public defender. She exited the courthouse with her head wrapped in a jacket to hide her face from photographers.

The Caronas left holding hands and refused to answer reporters' questions. Deborah Carona's attorney, David Weichert, told reporters, "I think it's appropriate that it is on Halloween that this witch hunt has commenced."

The sheriff's attorney, H. Dean Steward, said his client was "angry and didn't want to go through with this today. It was embarrassing to him."

He maintained that the sheriff had no plans to step down, and that he was "so anxious to fight these charges that we have to hold him back."

Prosecutors could have spared Carona the humiliation of being detained in a cell and appearing in court with handcuffs, Steward said, but they chose not to for symbolic reasons.

"They were trying to send him a message: 'You did something very bad. We gotcha,' " Steward said. "If you want to play it that way, we're ready. We're going to aggressively fight these charges."

The sheriff, his advisors said, had moved swiftly to divide his time between his dual roles as sheriff and defendant.

No taxpayer money will be spent on either of the Caronas' defense, Sheriff's Department spokesman Jim Amormino said. His lawyers are being paid from the couple's personal funds, Carona's political advisor, Mike Schroeder, said.

In the days before the indictment was unsealed, the department put procedures in place so the staff would perform the sheriff's duties when he was unavailable. Dan Paranick, executive director of the California State Sheriffs' Assn., said Carona's indictment should not hamper the department's ability to work with other law enforcement agencies.

"You can't say it's business as usual, and it's not good for the profession, but there's a duty and responsibility to continue protecting the public," said Paranick, retired Mono County sheriff. "The law enforcement community rises above this sort of thing. Indictments of elected sheriffs have happened before."

California law requires that law enforcement officers or elected officials who lead departments must be removed from their jobs if they are convicted of a felony. Many departments, including the Los Angeles County and Orange County sheriff's departments, have put in place higher standards for officers and deputies.

The Los Angeles County department suspends a deputy without pay when he or she is charged with a felony. If convicted, they are fired, said Mike Gennaco, chief attorney at the Office of Independent Review, which monitors the sheriff's internal affairs cases.

In Orange County, deputies are evaluated on a case-by-case basis and can be terminated or disciplined before a conviction, said Capt. Dave Nighswonger, who supervises the department's internal affairs cases.

In Carona's case, Nighswonger said his unit would take no action.

But there were signs Tuesday that the sheriff would face mounting efforts to force him out.

Supervisor Moorlach, who has called on Carona to resign, pushed for a ballot measure that would allow the Board of Supervisors to remove the sheriff from office. He wants supervisors at their meeting Tuesday to consider putting a charter amendment on the February ballot.

If it succeeds, the measure would allow the board to remove elected county officials from office "for cause," with a four-fifths vote among supervisors.

Moorlach's chief of staff, Mario Mainero, said the measure would allow officials to be removed for neglect of duties, misappropriation of public property, violating any law related to the elected official's duties, or falsifying an official document or statement.

Two other California sheriffs have been indicted by federal grand juries since 1989 and both were eventually forced to resign.

San Joaquin County Sheriff Baxter Dunn resigned in 2005 after pleading guilty to committing fraud in a corruption investigation. He resigned more than a year after he was indicted on charges that he provided sensitive law enforcement information to a private detective who contributed $5,000 to his campaigns.

In January 1989, Yolo County Sheriff Rod Graham was indicted on six counts of bribery, extortion and conspiracy. Graham was accused of offering to "manufacture" crime statistics for a developer in exchange for $3,650 in contributions to his political campaign.

Graham resigned in October 1989 and pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge four months later. In a plea agreement with prosecutors, he agreed to spend no more than a year in prison.

Times staff writers David Reyes and Stuart Pfeifer contributed to his report.

Copyright 2007 Los Angeles Times

Full story: So. Cal. sheriff faces judge on corruption charges

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