Carona gets 66 months in prison, $125,000 fine

Monday, April 27, 2009
Carona gets 66 months in prison, $125,000 fine
The Orange County Register

SANTA ANA – Former Sheriff Mike Carona was sentenced Monday to 5½ years in federal prison by a judge who said Carona brought shame to Orange County and victimized the people he was sworn to serve.


Carona, the highest ranking law-enforcement official ever prosecuted in Orange County, displayed no emotion. He sat with his head up and hands clasped on his knees as U.S. District Judge Andrew Guilford rejected his plea of probation.

He was allowed to remain free until July 24.

“Trust has been harmed here,” Guilford told Carona moments before reading his sentence. “Especially by this county’s leading law-enforcement officer.”

Guilford also ordered Carona to pay a $125,000 fine within one year.

The judge said he gave the sentence to promote respect for the law, to be deterrence to others and to establish a just punishment.

He rejected written arguments from Assistant U.S. Attorneys Brett Sagel and Ken Julian to sentence Carona to a nine-year sentence.

“It was the sitting sheriff of Orange County asking a crime partner to withhold information from a grand jury,” Sagel said. “We must be able to trust the honesty of our law-enforcement officials.”

Carona declined to comment after the sentencing, as he walked out of the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse with his wife.

Deborah Carona, who was initially charged, said she was totally disappointed and devastated by the sentence. I cannot understand how this could have happened. “This entire process has been devastating since day one.”

Brian Sun, one of several lawyers from the Jones Day Law Firm who represented Carona for free, said the defense team was “obviously very disappointed” with the judge’s decision.

“We will vigorously pursue his appellate rights, where we hope our positions will be recognized,” Sun said.

Sun said a key appellate issue will be the decision by federal prosecutors to covertly wire cooperating witness and co-conspirator Don Haidl and send him to a restaurant to entice Carona into making incriminating statements while knowing that Carona had a lawyer at the time.

Sun said they will also contend on appeal that prosecutors committed misconduct by creating a phony grand jury document for Haidl to show Carona as a talking point.

The sentencing comes more than three months after a jury convicted Carona of witness tampering, for trying to persuade one of his former assistants to lie during a criminal probe. The jury acquitted Carona of five other charges that he accepted more than $400,000 in bribes and laundered campaign contributions.

Guilford said that Carona’s victim had been the entire community of Orange County. “This case causes me some shame on behalf of our community,” he said.

Carona will have to serve at least 85 percent of his final prison sentence. He was ordered to turn himself in on July 24. That will allow him to attend his son’s high school graduation in June.

“I believe the Bureau of Prisons will protect Mr. Carona,” Guilford said during the sentencing hearing, “just as Carona protected inmates under his care.”

Carona spoke only briefly during the three-hour hearing, thanking the judge for the “kindness” and “courtesy” shown to him and his wife. But it was his behavior after his conviction that drew the judge’s ire.

He told reporters in January said he felt “beyond vindicated” when the jury found him not guilty of the five charges but convicted him of witness tampering, a felony. He has always maintained his innocence.

But Guilford said he found it troubling that Carona seemed to be celebrating a victory when he had been convicted of a serious felony.

“Carona,” he told the courtroom shortly before he handed down his sentence, “has given no indication that he wouldn’t ask someone again to lie.”

One of the jurors in the case, Ron Kuykendall, attended the hearing and said the judge’s sentence was “a lot more than I thought it was going to be.”

But he said he agreed with Guilford’s reasoning: “I think he hit the nail on the head. (Carona) is a government official and more is expected of him. All the good things he did, that’s part of the job.”

During the four-hour sentencing hearing, Sun urged Guilford to place his client on probation. “He’s humble, he’s hurt, he’s made mistakes,” Sun said. “But these are not mistakes deserving of a sentence the government is asking of this court.”

Carona arrived at court about an hour before the hearing, holding wife Deborah’s hand as he walked past news photographers. He declined to answer questions, telling reporters only that he was doing “as well as can be expected.”

The story behind Carona’s conviction begins at a Newport Beach restaurant in August 2007. Carona was meeting his former assistant sheriff, Haidl, to talk about an ongoing federal investigation into his administration.

Unbeknownst to Carona, Haidl was working for the government at the time, and wore a secret recording device. Haidl also carried a fake subpoena, and said he had been asked to testify before a grand jury.

The three-hour conversation was recorded on audiotape. In one exchange, Carona speculated that he would be “the first one on the stand.” He later said: “So the bottom line is – first person in there is what you say becomes the truth – it becomes the truth.”

Carona resigned from his post in January 2008 – three months after he was indicted.

Also charged in the case were Deborah Carona and Debra Hoffman, Carona’s former mistress. Charges against the women were later dropped.

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