Saturday, January 17, 2009

Why Is This Man Smiling?

Orange County's former sheriff, Mike Carona, was convicted in federal court yesterday of one count of jury tampering, a felony for which, according to the Orange County Register, he faces up to ten years in prison. Sentencing is scheduled for April 27.

Sounds pretty serious, huh? And yet the Register's front-page headline reads, "Carona's 'Miracle': The former sheriff is guilty of only one of six counts." And here's the lead paragraph of its main article:
An Orange County jury Friday acquitted former Sheriff Mike Carona of conspiracy, rejecting the government's claim that he participated in a six-year scheme to win office illegally and use his position to enrich himself and his friends.
Only in the second paragraph does the article note that Carona was convicted of a serious crime for which he may well do time in a federal prison. As for the other counts, the detailed work of Frank Mickadeit, one of the last of the great reporting columnists, suggests a muddier picture than the triumphant headlines on the front page. Evidently the statute of limitations can be a sheriff's best friend.

Carona was jubilant after the verdicts, as were his many friends in the county. Their good mood appears to have rubbed off on some of the journalists. His charisma is extraordinary. I know him best as a poised and inspiring speaker at seven of our annual Sept. 11 commemorations at the Nixon Library. While troubled by the charges against him, I never felt emotionally vested in his conviction. I'm glad he's happy. But the stark fact of the matter is that there may be another picture in his future showing a convicted jury-tamperer being led out of a federal courtroom in handcuffs, on the way to jail. That moment will be hard to spin as vindication of his good character.

If you think one federal felony conviction is a mere wisp of a thing, you might think about President Nixon's former White House counsel Chuck Colson, universally remembered as the dark prince of Watergate, the greatest political scandal in modern history. How did he plead? Guilty to one itty bitty count of obstruction of justice in connection with the Pentagon Papers, which had nothing directly to do with Watergate. On the day of his conviction, the Washington Post headline didn't read "Colson's Miracle."

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