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Sheriff indicted in Orange County bribery case

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 31 2007 12:33 a.m. MDT

SANTA ANA, Calif. — Orange County's sheriff was charged Tuesday with accepting bribes in exchange for political favors and pressing a witness to lie as authorities investigated whether he used his office to enrich himself.

The case against Michael S. Carona purportedly involves more than $350,000 in cash and gifts, as well as a "get out of jail free card" for a wealthy appointee whose son was arrested twice. Also named in the federal indictment were Carona's wife and a woman identified as his longtime mistress.

Carona rejected the allegations Tuesday and said he would not step down.

"I have never misused the office of the sheriff of Orange County for financial gain," Carona said in a prepared statement. "Any fair review of the evidence can only lead to that conclusion."

"And I am offended that similar accusations have been made about my wife, which are also patently false," he said.

The indictment alleges that the crimes began during the 1998 campaign, in which Carona was first elected to lead the nation's fifth-largest sheriff's department.

Carona gained national attention during an investigation into the 2002 kidnapping and killing of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion, and a year later had been mentioned as a possible Republican candidate for lieutenant governor.

Carona, 52, was expected to surrender to federal authorities Wednesday in Santa Ana, said U.S. attorney's spokesman Thom Mrozek. Also expected to surrender were his wife, Deborah, and attorney Debra Victoria Hoffman, who was identified in court papers as his mistress.

The sheriff's attorney, H. Dean Steward, did not immediately return an e-mail requesting comment.

The two former assistant sheriffs, Donald Haidl and George Jaramillo, previously pleaded guilty to related charges as part of a deal with prosecutors. Jaramillo, who is serving a 12-month term on state charges, cooperated with federal investigators to bring the case against Carona, his attorney said.

The indictment unsealed Tuesday charges the sheriff, his wife and Hoffman with conspiracy to accept bribes in exchange for political favors. Sheriff Carona also is charged with mail fraud and witness tampering, and Hoffman is charged with mail fraud and bankruptcy fraud.

The scheme allegedly began in 1998, when Haidl solicited donations to Carona's election campaign and then reimbursed donors to hide the money trail, according to the indictment.

After Carona was elected, Haidl, a wealthy businessman, paid for a Lake Tahoe vacation for Carona, Jaramillo, himself and their spouses, officials said. He also gave Carona a boat in 2001 and the personal use of his yacht and private plane, the indictment alleges.

Haidl allegedly continued to pay Carona $1,000 a month in cash for "full access to sheriff's department resources" and a "get out of jail free card" for friends and family members, according to the indictment.

Haidl also appointed Carona and Jaramillo to the board of directors of a company owned by Haidl's uncle.

In return, Carona allegedly appointed Haidl to the position of assistant sheriff for reserves in 1999 and made Haidl's family, friends and business associates reserve deputies.

When Haidl's teenage son, Gregory, was arrested in connection with a 2002 gang rape, Carona is accused of asking Jaramillo to lobby the county district attorney to charge the teen as a juvenile instead of as an adult.

When Gregory Haidl was arrested on a drug charge a year later, he received "preferential treatment" from the sheriff's department with Carona's consent, the indictment said.

The indictment also alleges that Carona asked Heidl as recently as August to lie to a federal grand jury about the alleged crimes.

Carona is accused of accepting gifts from unnamed Orange County businessmen, including ringside tickets to an Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad boxing match in Las Vegas; Mont Blanc pens; and luxury box seats to see the Angels in the World Series playoffs. His wife allegedly accepted designer suits and a Cartier watch valued at about $15,000.

Carona also appointed his wife to the Orange County Fair board of directors. He appointed Hoffman to a state advisory group on juvenile delinquency and the California Council on Criminal Justice, both of which he chaired.

The Samantha Runnion case greatly raised Carona's profile. CNN's Larry King called him "America's Sheriff," a nickname that still appears on Carona's official biography.

Even before the charges, Carona's star had faded in recent years. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2005 that he had issued badges and concealed-weapons permits to campaign contributors without proper training or background checks.

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