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Carona's mistress wants her own trial

Debra Hoffman's attorney wants to call the ex-sheriff to testify in corruption case.

December 02, 2008|Christine Hanley | Hanley is a Times staff writer.

She sits every day at a defense table behind former Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona, occasionally twirling her short blond hair and looking bored.

As Carona's longtime paramour, she emerged from the shadows of his life last year when she was indicted in the public corruption case against the former sheriff. Now, as they face trial together, days pass with hardly a mention of her name. And at times, even the judge seems to have forgotten she is in his courtroom.

Debra Hoffman, however, was hardly a bit player in what federal prosecutors say was a broad conspiracy to misuse and sell the powers of the sheriff's office. She actually faces the potential for more prison time than Carona because she is charged with bankruptcy fraud in addition to the corruption indictment.

Last week, a solid month into testimony, Hoffman's attorney asked for a separate trial, arguing that her client could not get a fair shake in the ongoing criminal trial. If Carona decides not to take the stand, Hoffman's public defender argued, she will not be able to question him about damaging statements he may have made on secretly recorded tapes that were played for jurors. The tapes, which chronicle three rambling and profane conversations between the sheriff and an assistant, are key to the prosecution.

U.S. Dist. Judge Andrew J. Guilford has talked in open court about the possibility of splitting the trials but has yet to rule on the request, even though the trial has reached the halfway point.

Hoffman and her attorney, federal Public Defender Sylvia Torres-Guillen, sit in a corner of the courtroom. They are partially obstructed from the view of the judge, the jury box and witness stand by the long defense table in front of them, where Carona sits with two and sometimes three attorneys from the prestigious Jones Day law firm, which is representing him free of charge.

Hoffman, an attorney who met Carona when he was first running for office, is married and has a young daughter. Her husband, Robert Schoff, has not attended the proceedings, unlike Carona's wife, Deborah, who has not missed a day of testimony. Despite the allegations that Hoffman and Carona carried on a long-running affair, the two women appear to be on friendly terms in the courtroom. Deborah Carona was also charged in the indictment and awaits separate trial.

According to testimony that has emerged throughout the trial, Deborah Carona may have been the only member of her husband's inner circle who was unaware of the relationship.

Hoffman fell head over heels for the sheriff, and their affair remained an open secret for years among his closest allies, witnesses said. Carona gave Hoffman jewelry and other gifts, took her to Las Vegas, gave her cash for their hotel rooms and half the $400 monthly rent for office space she considered their "love nest," according to witnesses. He also got her husband a job as a carpenter at the Sheriff's Department so they could better keep tabs on his whereabouts, witnesses said, and she opened a secret brokerage account for the two of them under the name "Bersagliere of Pacoima" in the hopes that no one would be able to figure it out. The Bersagliere were a corps of sharpshooters in the Italian army during World War I.

One of the most complex and potentially damaging areas of the case against Hoffman involves an alleged $110,000 loan to her law firm by Newport Beach millionaire Don Haidl. The money, in the form of a cashier's check, was cut the day before Carona won election to his first term, purportedly to cover law firm bills and other expenses because legal work had been neglected during the campaign, according to testimony.

Haidl testified that the loan was never paid back and that he later paid Hoffman an additional $65,000 over a period of about 18 months as a favor to Carona, who wanted to make sure Hoffman had a "safe landing" after her law partnership with George Jaramillo was dissolved. Jaramillo later became an assistant sheriff under Carona. Copies of the checks that Haidl wrote to Hoffman were displayed on courtroom monitors as he testified.

Like Carona, Hoffman is accused of concealing the loan, as well as cash, gifts and the Bersagliere brokerage account, on the economic interest forms she was required to fill out as a member of a state commission known as the California Council on Criminal Justice. Carona chaired the commission and recommended Hoffman for the post. Unlike Carona, Hoffman also faces charges that she knowingly left this financial information off bankruptcy forms she filed with her husband in 2001.

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