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Latest Cause Is Her Most Personal Yet

Courts: Sharon Esterley, a veteran of the local charity scene, marshals her skills in support of her husband, former county official Ronald S. Rubino.

August 24, 1996|TRACY WEBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In Orange County's philanthropic scene, Sharon Esterley has a reputation as a formidable event planner.

Seemingly tireless, relentlessly detail-oriented, the former John Wayne Airport spokeswoman has marshaled the less driven into action for causes from breast cancer to the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art.

But for the past nine months, Esterley, 53, has been devoted to a solitary cause: securing an innocent verdict for former County Budget Director Ronald S. Rubino, her husband of the past decade.

She has rallied letter-writing campaigns, turned her friends into paralegals and vigorously monitored press accounts of her husband's trial.

"She has put all of her energies and all of her talents into a man that she totally believes in," said Priscilla Selman, who met Esterley through her charitable work and organized a fund-raiser for Rubino, 44, in June.

When the Orange County supervisors were considering whether to pay Rubino's legal bills in March, friends of the couple swamped the board offices with laudatory letters. Supervisor Marian Bergeson said she couldn't go to a social function without being waylaid by a Rubino supporter.

The supervisors declared an exception to their policy and allotted $300,000 to defend Rubino against charges that he helped illegally skim $91 million from cities, school districts and other agencies with money in the county's investment pool. Prosecutors do not claim that Rubino enriched himself in the alleged scheme, but allegedly used the diversion to enhance his career.

Bergeson dumped $250 of her own money into Rubino's private legal defense fund, which now contains more than $25,000.

"He is the only county individual that we have had such an outpouring of support for," said Bergeson, who remembers having only "positive" experiences working with Rubino while she was a state senator.

When Esterley and Rubino worried about the mounting legal bills, their friends volunteered to do the scut work, transcribing tape recordings, filing reams of paperwork and making photocopies.

Carol Musselman has gotten so familiar with Rubino attorney Rodney M. Perlman's West Los Angeles office that she feels like she works there.

"Sharon will give me a call and say, 'My God, we can't find this or we need that,' " said Musselman, who has known Esterley for 25 years. "They were trying to struggle through all this and I just said, 'I'm retired. I have the time, and I'd like to give the time.' "

Musselman, a former county children's services investigator, volunteered to help Dec. 12, the day Rubino was indicted, and has worked on the case two days a week ever since, even accompanying Rubino on document-gathering trips to the Orange County district attorney's office.

Her husband John, a computer graphics artist, prepared many of the trial exhibits. And her niece, Denyse Hopkins, a legal secretary, summarized hours of taped transcripts and transcribed attorney notes.

"I just called them and said, 'Whatever you need me to do, I'll be there,' " said Hopkins, who considers the couple her "adopted family."

Virginia Jurkowich of Laguna Hills heads over to Perlman's office once a week to put tabs on folders and make copies after a morning volunteering at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

"They pretty wisely decided they could do a lot of these things, and they'd save a lot of money," said Jurkowich, a longtime friend of Esterley.

Since the trial began on Aug. 12, Esterley and Rubino have hunkered down to ensure nothing hurts the cause.

Esterley declined to talk about the case, fearing that anything she or her family might say could hurt her husband's chance for a fair trial. She followed up her refusal to talk with a fax and had Perlman alert the judge who is presiding in Rubino's case that a story might be written.

Each day she sits front and center, well-tanned and confident-looking, beside her two teenage stepdaughters. While prosecutors paint her husband as being an architect in the diversion of funds, a tag team of about 10 friends and the couple's Newport Beach neighbors sit with her in firm support.

Sometimes Rubino's friends fill half the cramped, sixth-floor courtroom in Santa Ana. And when the trial has appeared to go Rubino's way, the corridors outside the court have been filled with hopeful talk among his supporters.

"They are totally immersed in clearing his name," Musselman said. "Sharon and Ron stay up until two in the morning and then get up and do it all over again. It's not only eight hours a day. It's 24 hours a day."

For all Esterley's outward calm, Musselman said, the trial has taken its toll in "unimaginable ways" on the family.

"It's like a disease," Musselman said. "You think, 'Am I going to get well?' "

And like a serious illness, it's difficult not to constantly obsess over the outcome, Musselman said, and whether the efforts at a cure will be enough.

"We try not to talk about it. We try and talk about other things," she said. "But it's just there. . . . Sharon's just been trying to carry on with a life, trying to do everything that needs to be done."

The couple go to movies with friends. Rubino plays vigorous games of tennis.

It's been especially hard on Rubino's two daughters, Michele, 19, a freshman at UC Santa Barbara, and Alison, 16, and his mother, Marianne Rubino of Arcadia, who lost her husband a few years ago. Michele worries that she shouldn't leave her dad to return to school, friends said.

The two girls gathered their friends to work as servers, clad in black and white, at the June fund-raiser for their dad at the Dana Point home of a close friend.

Marianne Rubino said she knows the jury will find her son innocent.

"I really believe it's going to come out that they don't believe he did anything wrong," she said.

* DEFENSE TO BEGIN

Judge rejects a motion to acquit Ronald S. Rubino. B5

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