A defense witness plays the percentages on the issue of Mike Carona’s campaign contributors getting badges
A rare moment of glee cracked on the faces of Mike Carona’s legal team at the indicted ex-sheriff’s public corruption trial last week. Defense attorney Brian A. Sun called John Jenkins, one of his private investigators, to the witness stand in hopes of bolstering the contention that, while sheriff for nine years until January 2008, Carona had not established a slimy correlation between contributing to his campaigns and obtaining valuable perks from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. The assertion, born in the sheriff’s hamfisted, taxpayer-funded spin operation years before the arrival of his Jones Day defense lawyers, should have been a courtroom slam-dunk. After all, OC’s onetime top cop wouldn’t lie, right?
Federal prosecutors had rested their case a day earlier after seven weeks of often-sensational testimony chronicling Carona’s tragic character flaws that should have disqualified him from wearing those four stars on his uniform.
For example, Newport Beach businessman Don Haidl described his reward for spending more than $150,000 in illegal money for the sheriff: a job as assistant sheriff, complete with full police powers, access to secret databases, and the keys to a police cruiser with lights and a siren— despite his having no meaningful law-enforcement training. Jurors got to hold the used-car dealer’s impressive, if unearned, solid-gold sheriff’s badge. On the stand, the gruff Haidl would admit only that he’d used the powerful symbol to escape speeding tickets.
Gabriel Nassar, another colorful prosecution witness, told jurors the then-sheriff had bet him $100 he couldn’t swiftly (and illegally) raise $25,000 for Carona’s re-election campaign from just five individuals. Nassar recalled that Carona had asked him how he’d do it. He said he’d lure the donations by offering real deputy badges. Carona supplied the badges, Nassar said.
The tainted funds poured in (including from Henry Samueli, the billionaire co-founder of Broadcom Inc., and his bodyguard) and the sheriff paid the bet, writing on the currency, “We will never doubt you again.” No juror fell asleep while Nassar displayed possibly the most devastating images of the trial: photographs of him holding the $100 bill from the bet with a smiling Carona and Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo by his side.
Sun and his hard-charging defense colleague Jeffrey Rawitz understood the likely damage from this sort of testimony. They were anxious for Jenkins—a tall, lean fellow with a bit of a scowl and the chiseled jaw of a runway model—to score their first offensive points. The ex-Orange County prosecutor turned “small boutique” gumshoe strode by the jury, swore to tell the truth, sat in the witness chair, stiffened his back and gazed around the room with confidence.
In answer to Sun’s softball questions, Jenkins explained to the jury of 11 men and one woman that he collected lists of Carona’s campaign contributors, and then searched for matches with anyone who got real badges and/or concealed-weapon permits. You’d think this would be a fairly straightforward task. And sure enough, Jenkins told prosecutor Ken Julian when the jury was out of the room, “It’s really simple.”
Keeping it simple was a wise idea. It’s no secret that a few jurors have repeatedly lost battles to remain awake during testimony. I don’t know if they’re bored by the case or if it’s an age issue. Several members of the panel look to be in their late 70s or early 80s.
The defense answer to the malaise was to visually stimulate the jury. Enter the debonair Jenkins and a color-coded pie chart of his findings. Using a professorial tone, he said he’d determined that from 1997 to 2003, there had been 2,261 contributors to Carona’s campaigns. Of that total, 24 percent of people who’d been given badges had also give money to the sheriff, according to Jenkins.
During the testimony, Sun—a diminutive, fidgety man known to steal quick swigs of bottled lemonade and handfuls of Fritos from his leather satchel when Judge Andrew Guilford isn’t looking—gauged the jury’s reactions. Carona, arguably the best natural actor ever to serve as a California sheriff, dramatically nodded his head as if Jenkins’ claim had eviscerated eyewitness testimony for the government.
Yet, I can only conclude that Sun didn’t believe the PI’s testimony had overwhelmed jurors. Because the following day, Dec. 12, Sun asked Guilford to reopen his direct examination. The judge agreed, and Jenkins recast his findings.
Though the defense had more than a year to prepare, Jenkins testified that “we just sort of took the same numbers, but decided to present them in a little bit different way.” It was if the 24 percent figure (the alleged percentage of contributors who got badges) had vanished. He now asserted to jurors that the operative number was 7.65 percent (the alleged percentage of reserve deputies who contributed). Sun looked at jurors, nodded his head affirmatively and sat down beside Carona.
Julian grabbed his three-ring binder, walked to the podium and greeted Jenkins with a smile that foreshadowed a coming massacre. The senior federal prosecutor—who keeps a multicanister supply of Altoids at his desk—tends to deliver questions in a soft-spoken, almost conversational manner. If you’re not paying attention, you might miss the subtle but potent answers he solicits.
Today, however, Julian pounced. He immediately dubbed Jenkins’ attempt to downsize the important number from 24 percent to 7 percent “the new math.” The PI paused but eventually answered, “Yes,” when asked if the 24 percent figure was “still valid.”
“So without any [defense team] adjustments, we’re almost 25 percent based upon your own calculations?” asked Julian.
Jenkins looked at the defense table, glanced down and said, “No, that’s right.”
The next half-hour of cross-examination could be used in law school. Julian got Jenkins to admit that his calculations had not included contributors to the mysterious Mike Carona Foundation, Gold Star fund-raising events done to promote the sheriff or Carona’s ridiculously pompous swearing-in ceremonies.
To each point, Jenkins replied that he’d only included the sheriff’s campaign contributors. The answers fell into Julian’s trap: Shortly thereafter, Jenkins admitted that his calculations ignored chunks of the sheriff’s contributor base. If Carona listed a business as a contributor, for example, Jenkins hadn’t bothered to check if the owner of the business had been a contributor who had received a badge. He also didn’t factor all the extensive laundered contributions into his calculations. By the time Julian was finished (after fighting off numerous Sun objections), Jenkins agreed that the figure of contributors who got badges was, rather than 24 percent, likely more than 50 percent.
Jenkins’ shoulders slumped, and he stared blankly at Julian while waiting for his next question. Jurors looked back and forth at both men and took notes. The prosecutor grabbed the podium with both hands, rocked back and forth on his heels, and fired off his second-to-last question: “Have you ever heard the phrase ‘garbage in, garbage out?’”
“Yes,” the defense witness said.
Do you agree with that? Julian asked.
“Sure,” he replied.
CNN-featured investigative reporter R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; obtained one of the last exclusive prison interviews with Charles Manson disciple Susan Atkins; won inclusion in Jeffrey Toobin’s The Best American Crime Reporting for his coverage of a white supremacist’s senseless murder of a beloved Vietnamese refugee; launched multi-year probes that resulted in the FBI arrests and convictions of the top three ranking members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department; and gained praise from New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing entrenched Southern California law enforcement corruption.