SANTA ANA — In a dramatic change from previous statements, a Democratic spoiler candidate recruited by Republicans in a key 1995 Assembly race testified Wednesday that GOP aide Rhonda Carmony never told her to falsify nominating petitions to get on the ballot.
Laurie Campbell, the decoy Democrat whose candidacy unraveled amid a scandal that touched the staffs of GOP leaders, repeatedly contradicted and explained away earlier statements and testimony, which had implicated defendant Carmony.
Campbell's testimony was the most anticipated moment in the trial so far. Though Campbell is a prosecution witness, defense attorney Creighton Laz said in his opening argument that she was expected to give very different testimony than she had offered to the grand jury.
Last week, Campbell told the court she might invoke her 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination and refuse to testify. In the interim, the court assigned her a new attorney and she decided to take the stand.
Campbell, a 37-year-old legal secretary, insisted that it was another GOP aide, Jeff Gibson, who handed her the nominating petitions and instructed her to sign them while seated in a car outside the registrar's office moments before the filing deadline in September 1995. She described Carmony, who was also in the car, as a bystander.
Prosecutors allege the two GOP aides--Carmony and Gibson--were taking the last step in a plan to place a second Democrat on the election ballot in the hope of splintering the Democratic vote and ensuring a Republican victory in the election to succeed former Republican Speaker Doris Allen of Cypress. Allen was recalled in a simultaneous vote by voters angry that she had cut a deal with Democrats.
As part of the scheme, Campbell needed to sign the papers to conceal that GOP aides had actually gathered the nominating petition signatures, prosecutors allege.
Three GOP aides last year pleaded guilty to misdemeanor violations of making a false nomination paper. Gibson, Mark Denny and Richard Martin all were fined and sentenced to probation for their role in recruiting Campbell. All testified earlier in the trial.
Campbell told authorities 18 months ago that both Gibson and Carmony at times had instructed her on how to complete part of the forms. But in Superior Court on Wednesday, she was positive all the directions came from Gibson.
"He is the only one who really talked to me," she testified repeatedly. "I'm certain it was Jeff because Rhonda didn't say anything."
Gibson, who pleaded guilty last year to a single misdemeanor of making a fraudulent nominating petition, has testified that he watched as Carmony instructed Campbell how to complete the nomination petitions.
Carmony, 27, is the campaign director and fiancee of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach). She is charged with falsely making a nominating petition, falsely filing a nominating petition and conspiring to falsely file a nominating petition.
Prosecutors allege that Carmony persuaded other Republican workers to gather Democratic voters' signatures on Campbell's nominating petitions, knowing that they would not sign as the petitions' circulators as required by law. While it is not against the law to recruit a candidate of the opposing party, it is illegal to falsify nominating petitions.
The defense maintains that Carmony at best was only marginally involved in the plan and never gave any instructions about falsifying the documents.
At times combative and later appearing weary after five hours of testimony, Campbell fenced repeatedly with Assistant Dist. Atty. Brent Romney. She said she felt bullied and confused during previous tape-recorded interviews in December 1995 with district attorney's investigators and during testimony before the Orange County Grand Jury in February 1996.
"Yes, I was truthful [then] but the questions were extremely compound . . . and many were asked about multiple events and times," she said, as she explained why her testimony now places all the blame on Gibson.
In 1995, she told investigators that Carmony and Gibson each handled forms, that both of them handed documents to Campbell for her to sign and that both told her to fill in "Huntington Beach" as the location where the forms were signed even though they were parked in Santa Ana.
"They said to, you know, just to sign it," she told investigators. "And they told me to sign it in Huntington Beach."
On Wednesday, however, she backtracked and attributed her previous testimony to the chaos of trying to meet a 5 p.m. deadline that was just minutes away while all three were in the car.
"I said 'they' because they were together," she said. "It was a very confusing time. There was a lot of stuff going on in the car."