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SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) - More than a year ago, Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona nibbled on crab cakes at a ritzy, seaside restaurant and praised his dinner companion for unflinching loyalty and friendship.

Carona didn't know the man he considered his best friend was wearing a wire as part of a federal corruption investigation that would upend the nation's fifth-largest sheriff's department and snuff out Carona's rising star.

Three months after that dinner, the government filed charges against Carona that cost him and key supporters their jobs in a case that features hidden cameras in Carona's office, profanity-laced recordings and allegations of misconduct by prosecutors.

Opening statements are expected Wednesday in the trial of the lawman once hailed as ``America's Sheriff'' by CNN's Larry King.

Carona, 53, has vigorously denied the felony charges of conspiracy, mail fraud and witness tampering. The charges carry up to 85 years in prison, but he could be sentenced to much less if convicted.

His wife will stand trial later. She has pleaded not guilty to one count of conspiracy.

A woman described as Carona's mistress is being tried with him. The woman, an attorney, has pleaded not guilty to conspiracy, mail fraud and bankruptcy fraud.

The trial is expected to last two months and the taped conversations - which contain sexual remarks and racial slurs - promise to figure prominently.

Legal experts said the allegations of political corruption make it a high-stakes trial for the government.

``To a certain degree, the average citizen expects that when people are in a position of power, they're going to use it to ... benefit their friends,'' said Jean Rosenbluth, a law professor at the University of Southern California and a former federal prosecutor. ``But it's the extent of it and the nature of how engrained it was that's disturbing in this case.''

The intrigue grew after the acting sheriff discovered a secret room in Carona's old office that contained a video recording system and cameras hidden in the ceiling. The tapes were turned over to prosecutors.

In court papers, the government accuses the square-jawed, three-term sheriff and his friends of accepting nearly $700,000 in cash, gifts and kickbacks in exchange for political favors beginning in 1998. Prosecutors say many of those bribes came from Don Haidl, a wealthy businessman.

In exchange, authorities say, Carona made Haidl an assistant sheriff and put him 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.

It's unclear if Carona will testify in his own defense, but prosecutors plan to present a laundry-list of cooperating witnesses, including two of Carona's former assistant sheriffs and an attorney who allegedly provided kickbacks for legal referrals.

During the taped meeting last summer, Haidl and Carona appeared to get their stories straight as the threat of federal grand jury testimony loomed.

``I don't give a (expletive) if George was in the room, whatever we did, as long as our stories are straight, I'm OK, as long as I know there's no trail anywhere,'' Haidl said on the tape, referring to another assistant sheriff and alleged co-conspirator.

``No trail anywhere,'' Carona replied. ``Period. Period. In fact, not even close to being a trail.''

In another exchange about bribery allegations, Carona appeared to refer to a hidden camera.

``Unless there was a pinhole in your ceiling that evening, it never (expletive) happened because it never (expletive) happened, Don,'' Carona said on the tape. ``And that part is why I sleep real well at night.''

Carona's attorney, Brian Sun, declined to comment on the case or the tapes. During a hearing this week, he said he might subpoena Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to testify about how he once offered Carona a job as his chief of staff.

In legal filings, Carona's attorneys have argued their client was a dedicated lawman unfairly targeted by overzealous prosecutors with a flawed case.

Carona attracted the national spotlight and the praise of Larry King in 2002, after the quick arrest of a man who was later convicted of killing a 5-year-old girl.

At trial, Carona's defense will likely highlight Carona's popularity and ask jurors to question the trustworthiness of the cooperating witnesses.

His attorneys also question the tactics of prosecutors who provided phony grand jury subpoena attachments to help Haidl get Carona to talk and allege that grand jury witnesses gave potentially false testimony.

A judge rejected a defense motion to suppress the tapes but did bar some portions where Carona makes sexually explicit and racially offensive remarks.
 
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