SANTA ANA, Calif. – A federal appeals court on Thursday upheld former Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona's conviction for witness tampering, bringing the former three-term lawman once dubbed "America's sheriff" one step closer to prison.
Carona was indicted in 2008 on federal charges of conspiracy, mail fraud and witness tampering in a sweeping public corruption case that grabbed headlines and included sordid allegations of marital infidelity, pay-to-play schemes, cronyism and money laundering.
The veteran lawman was acquitted of all but one count of witness tampering in 2009 and sentenced to 5½ years in prison. During the sentencing hearing, the judge gave him a public tongue-lashing for holding a celebratory press conference outside the courthouse and declaring his innocence despite the conviction.
Carona appealed, arguing prosecutors broke an ethical rule when they arranged for ex-assistant sheriff Don Haidl to secretly record an August 2007 conversation even though Carona had already retained a criminal defense attorney. He also argued he was charged under the wrong federal statute on the witness tampering count.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected both of Carona's arguments and affirmed U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Guilford's ruling at trial.
Carona's attorney, Brian Sun, did not immediately reply to a call and e-mail seeking comment.
Prosecutor Brett Sagel said he was gratified by the ruling.
"Although sometimes justice isn't as swift as everybody hopes, we are happy and confident with this result. Justice does prevail in the end," he said. "The government investigation and prosecution led to Mike Carona's indictment, removal from office and conviction — and now he'll be going to jail."
Guilford set a Jan. 25 hearing regarding Carona's surrender.
Carona could seek further review from the appeals court, and it wasn't immediately clear when he would report to prison.
The government charged that as early as 1998, the three-term sheriff solicited the help of Haidl, a multimillionaire businessman, to launder at least $30,000 in campaign contributions.
Once elected, Carona rewarded Haidl with the post of assistant sheriff and control over a new reserve deputy program that allowed him to hand out law enforcement badges to his friends, relatives and associates, the government said.
The prosecution contended Haidl's gifts to Carona in the alleged pay-to-play scheme exceeded $430,000 over several years.
Haidl eventually became a government informant, along with another former assistant sheriff and Carona's one-time campaign manager. Both men were named as unindicted coconspirators in the grand jury indictment against Carona and reached plea deals with federal prosecutors early on.
Haidl wore a wire to three meetings with Carona in summer 2007, producing hours of profanity-laced audio tapes that were repeatedly played for the jury. Haidl also spent 12 days on the witness stand, although the other ex-assistant sheriff did not testify.
The witness tampering count stemmed from one of Carona's secretly recorded conversations with Haidl. On the tape, Carona can be heard attempting to persuade Haidl to match stories with him in front of the grand jury.
Carona's wife, Deborah, and former mistress, Debra Hoffman, originally faced related charges, but the judge dismissed their cases after Carona was acquitted of most charges.
Carona gained national attention during an investigation into the 2002 kidnapping and murder of 5-year-old Samantha Runnion. CNN's Larry King called him "America's Sheriff," a nickname that appeared on Carona's biography when he worked for Orange County.
He quickly became a rising star in state Republican politics, had been mentioned as a possible candidate for lieutenant governor, served as a White House homeland security adviser and even met with then-White House political strategist Karl Rove to discuss his career.
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