Ex-Sheriff Gets 5 1/2 Years for Witness Tampering

A judge sentenced a former Southern California sheriff on Monday to 5 1/2 years in prison for witness tampering and gave him a tongue lashing for boasting that he had been acquitted of most charges.

U.S. District Judge Andrew J. Guilford sentenced Michael Carona to the prison term and ordered the disgraced lawman to pay a $125,000 fine and serve two years of probation after his release.

The judge accused Carona of sending the wrong message about respect for law and the jury system with his claims of vindication after being acquitted in January of five of the six charges against him.

"It is a different matter for you to proclaim victory after you were convicted by a jury of a felony. It's one thing not to admit guilt, it's a different thing to celebrate the verdict with proclamation of victory and proclamations of innocence," he said.

Defense attorney Jeff Rawitz told the judge he took responsibility for Carona's reaction to the verdict and should have told him to keep his mouth shut. Carona had called his acquittal on the five counts a miracle, thanked God and said that God had forgiven him for "some mistakes along the way."

Neither Carona, once head of the nation's fifth-largest sheriff's department, nor his wife had any apparent reaction to the sentence. Prosecutors had pressed for a nine-year term while Carona's lawyer sought probation.

Prosecutors had alleged conspiracy and multiple counts of mail fraud and witness tampering in a case that included allegations of pay-to-play schemes and money laundering.

The government charged that as early as 1998, the three-term lawman solicited the help of businessman Don Haidl 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 that Haidl's gifts to Carona exceeded $430,000 over several years.

Haidl eventually became a government informant, as did 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 of which Carona was convicted involved a secretly recorded conversation in which Carona attempted to persuade Haidl to match their stories 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 was ordered to surrender on July 24. The judge did not immediately rule on a motion to allow him to remain free pending appeal.