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Secret recordings played at ex-Calif. sheriff's trial

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By Gillian Flaccus
Associated Press

SANTA ANA, Calif. Federal prosecutors played secretly recorded conversations Thursday that they said show former Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona discussing whether tens of thousands of dollars in alleged cash bribes can be traced.

The recordings are central to the government's case against Carona, the former head of the nation's fifth-largest sheriff's department, who was indicted last year on public corruption charges.

Prosecutors allege that over several years Carona, his mistress Debra Hoffman, his wife and a close group of friends accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes and kickbacks in exchange for the power of Carona's office.

The government contends the scheme began as early as 1998, when Carona - an underdog candidate - asked millionaire businessman Don Haidl to help him launder tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions. Haidl went on to pay Carona monthly bribes of $1,000 in exchange for access to the department's resources and an assistant sheriff's position that put him in charge of a new reserve deputy program, prosecutors allege.

Carona, 53, has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy, mail fraud and witness tampering. His mistress, Debra Hoffman, has pleaded not guilty to charges of conspiracy, mail fraud and bankruptcy fraud. Carona's wife, Deborah, will be tried separately on a single count of conspiracy.

On Thursday, prosecutors played six segments from three conversations between Carona and Haidl last summer. Haidl brought phony grand jury subpoena attachments to the last meeting to get a reticent Carona to talk.

Carona already knew that former Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo and an attorney friend had been talking to government investigators about the alleged bribes and money laundering.

In one exchange, Haidl and Carona talk about how investigators will scrutinize their financial transactions, and Haidl asks Carona whether Hoffman, his mistress, can be trusted not to say anything.

"Well, here's something that everybody can sleep real good at night about. The limited cash that I had, it didn't end up in bank accounts ... or, you know, new cars or any of that," Carona said. "The only person that probably got cash ... would be Deb Hoffman."

"And she's cool?" Haidl replied, seeking assurance that she wouldn't say anything.

Carona said Hoffman would not, and added: "You know, the money she got, you can pretty much match it up against ATM withdrawals that I had," Carona says. "Not only is she cool, she's - there's - you know, she would know better."

In another segment, Carona elaborates on how he pays Hoffman $200 a month to help pay the rent at her law office, in part so they can have a place to carry on their affair. Haidl asks for reassurance that Hoffman doesn't know where the cash was coming from.

"Has no idea where it came from. And, by the way, if you go back and look, my answer's gonna be, it came from my account," Carona replies.

Carona's defense team has said that Haidl is a liar and a manipulator who will say whatever the government wants to save himself. His attorneys also say that Carona was unaware that Haidl was soliciting illegal donations for him and therefore can't be held responsible.

They also contend that prosecutors acted improperly in securing the secret recordings because they gave Haidl phony subpoena attachments to show Carona to get him to talk.

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

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