SANTA ANA, Calif. – A jury stunned a courtroom Friday by acquitting former Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona of a sweeping corruption conspiracy and all but one related count of witness tampering.
Carona, 53, began shaking as the verdicts were being read in U.S. District Court, then put his head down on the counsel table and sobbed loudly. He had been accused of doing favors for a rich businessman in exchange for hundreds of thousands of dollars in gifts.
In the gallery, his wife, Deborah, and friends gasped. "Oh my God!" she blurted repeatedly.
The jury found Carona not guilty of one count of conspiracy, three counts of mail fraud and one count of witness tampering. He was convicted of a second count of witness tampering. The penalty for that count was not immediately clear.
The judge said Carona could be released on bond, with restrictions against travel.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Julian said he was glad to have the single conviction.
"I'm grateful he was convicted on witness tampering, absolutely," Julian said.
The case went to the jury on Jan. 8 after a 10-week trial peppered with the suggestion of scandal: infidelity and betrayal, clandestine money drops, government informants and hours of profanity-laced secret recordings.
Carona, once dubbed "America's sheriff" by CNN's Larry King for helping put away a child murderer, was indicted in October 2007 after a long federal probe. The charismatic, three-term lawman retired as the head of the nation's fifth-largest sheriff's department three months later.
Both Carona's wife, Deborah, and former mistress, Debra Hoffman, have also been charged in the case, but they are to be tried later. Hoffman is charged with conspiracy, mail fraud and bankruptcy fraud, while Deborah Carona is charged with a single count of conspiracy.
The government charged that as early as 1998, Carona solicited the help of multimillionaire businessman Don Haidl to launder at least $30,000 in campaign contributions.
Once elected, Carona rewarded Haidl with the post of assistant sheriff, prosecutors said. Haidl received a car, a gun, a badge, a "get-out-of-jail-free" card, 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 sheriff also intervened in a rape case involving Haidl's teenage son, they said.
In exchange, Haidl gave Carona $1,000 a month, paid for luxurious trips and tailored suits, lent Carona his yacht and private jet and bailed out Hoffman and her foundering law firm with a questionable bridge loan, the government said.
In all, prosecutors said, Haidl's gifts to Carona exceeded $430,000. Haidl eventually reached a plea deal and was the prosecution's star witness, and hours of profanity-laced tapes he secretly made while meeting with Carona were played for the jury.
Carona's defense team, which represented him for free, argued that Haidl was pinning the blame on Carona to save himself. The defense also questioned why the government never called a number of witnesses — including George Jaramillo, one of his ex-assistants who cooperated in the government's investigation.