A paintball park developer testifying Friday at the federal corruption trial of former Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona said he got a case of the jitters the night he handed an envelope filled with tens of thousands of dollars in cash to one of the sheriff's close friends.
The businessman told jurors that he'd been told the money was necessary if he wanted "to move the project forward."
Giovanni D'Egidio, who along with his business partner was seeking a site for a paintball park in the late 1990s, said he did not consider the cash a bribe. But he said he became nervous about the transaction because when he arrived at Joe Cavallo's law office to pay him, Cavallo was sitting in his parked car and flashed his headlights to get his attention.
"I remember it was dark. . . . I heard my name. He was in the corner of the parking lot. . . . He flashed his lights and said 'Giovanni, I'm over here,' " D'Egidio recalled.
"I got a little nervous in the stomach. . . . It was an awkward, weird moment. . . . I thought we were going to meet in the office," he testified.
D'Egidio said he climbed into the car and handed the envelope to Cavallo, who said that he was excited about the prospect of the paintball park and that he was going to split the money with then-Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo.
He testified that his business partner, Dennis Bukowski, later asked him what happened, and he told him, "You don't want to know."
Carona is on trial on charges that he misused the sheriff's office to enrich himself and others, including his wife, Deborah, and longtime mistress, Debra Hoffman. The two women, a judge ruled Friday, will stand trial together in February on charges related to the corruption case.
Carona's own attorney called D'Egidio as a witness in an effort to dispel the assertion that Carona got a cut of the paintball money.
Cavallo testified earlier in the trial that he received about $25,000 in cash from the paintball partners for his help in finding and negotiating a site for a park. Cavallo said he turned the money over to then-Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl, a Newport Beach millionaire who testified that Carona and Jaramillo split $5,000 for their role in trying to get support for the project.
The permanent paintball park that was envisioned never materialized, though Bukowski now operates a paintball facility at the Orange County Fairgrounds.
D'Egidio said Carona participated in several meetings about a park proposal after his rendezvous with Cavallo, but at no point in the process were was there any discussion about Carona being paid for his influence.
He also said that Hoffman had made progress toward securing an Irvine Co. location, but that possibility fizzled after Cavallo entered the picture. Cavallo, he told jurors, initially asked for $30,000 or $40,000 to move the project forward, but finally agreed to a lesser amount. Cavallo insisted the money be paid in cash, D'Egidio said. In his own testimony, Cavallo said he didn't care if he was paid in cash or a check.
The corruption trial, which began in late October, will likely continue into next year, U.S. District Judge Andrew J. Guilford said Friday.
Guilford on Friday set a Feb. 10 joint trial date for Hoffman and the sheriff's wife, but said he was leaning toward severing the cases, partly because of the potential salaciousness of trying the women together.
"There is a lot of possibility we might lose our focus," Guilford warned attorneys on both sides of the cases as they argued the pros and cons of a joint trial.
Hoffman's case was split from the trial of the former sheriff weeks ago to reconcile issues about her inability to cross-examine the former sheriff about incriminating statements he made in conversations secretly recorded by the government. Deborah Carona's case was previously severed.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Brett A. Sagel said the government wants the two women tried together, in part for judicial efficiency. If the cases are severed, he said, prosecutors want to try Deborah Carona before Hoffman.
Dave Wiechert, an attorney for Deborah Carona, opposed the idea of a joint trial and promised to file a motion to separate the cases against the two women. He argued, among other things, that the charges against Hoffman are significantly more serious than those his client faces. Wiechert also said he was worried about the "avalanche" of publicity that could taint a jury pool if the former sheriff is convicted in the meantime.
Guilford responded by noting his surprise over how many people were uninformed about the people involved in the cases during the questioning of a jury pool before Carona's trial began.