Opening statements begin this morning in the federal public corruption trial of former Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona, who was once dubbed "America's sheriff."

The 53-year-old Carona is charged with conspiracy, mail fraud and witness tampering. Also charged are his alleged mistress and his wife.

Deborah Carona will be tried after her husband's expected two-month trial. But his alleged mistress — Newport Beach attorney Debra Hoffman — is on trial with the disgraced ex-sheriff.

A series of conversations secretly recorded by 1 of Carona's former assistant sheriffs and close friends promises to figure prominently in the case.

Prosecutors say Carona and his friends accepted nearly $700,000 in cash, gifts, kickbacks and questionable loans in exchange for political favors beginning a decade ago.

Many of those bribes allegedly came from Don Haidl, a wealthy businessman who was made an assistant sheriff by Carona and placed in charge of a new reserve deputy program that allowed him to hand out badges and concealed weapons permits in a pay-to-play scheme.

Haidl pleaded guilty last year to tax fraud and agreed to become an undercover informant.

Defense lawyers say Carona was a dedicated public servant targeted by overzealous prosecutors with a flawed case.