Judge separates trials of Michael Carona and his former mistress

Five weeks into a high-profile corruption case, a federal judge agreed Tuesday to separate the trials of former Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona and his one-time mistress, throwing a twist into the proceedings.

Outside the presence of the jury, U.S. District Judge Andrew J. Guilford ruled that Debra Hoffman should be tried separately later. The judge said he was concerned, among other things, about potentially incriminating statements that Carona made about Hoffman during a series of secretly recorded conversations that have been played for jurors throughout the trial.

The tapes, filled with profane language and sexual innuendo, have emerged as a potentially critical piece of evidence in the trial.

Hoffman argued last week that unless Carona took the stand, she would not be able to question him about those statements, captured on a hidden microphone worn by former assistant sheriff Don Haidl. A Newport Beach millionaire, Haidl agreed to go undercover as part of a plea agreement and is now a key government witness.

"At this point, I need to tell you that Ms. Hoffman will no longer be in this particular trial," Guilford told jurors when they returned from a lunch break, reminding them that they should not draw any implications or inferences from her absence.

"She's not here. Don't hold that against either side," Guilford said. "You should not worry yourselves about why Ms. Hoffman is no longer here. You could perhaps find that out at the conclusion, after you've reached your verdict."

Hoffman left the courtroom shortly after Guilford reached his decision but returned about 15 minutes later as testimony resumed against Carona, holding a legal pad in her lap as she sat in the front row of the gallery next to her attorney, federal public defender Sylvia Torres-Guillen. Carona's wife, who is also charged and awaits separate trial, is also sitting in on the trial.

Carona and Hoffman went on trial Oct. 28 on charges that they conspired with others to sell the power of the sheriff's office for their own profit.

So far, jurors have heard from about 20 witnesses, including a pilot who said he recalled whisking Carona off to Las Vegas and a one-time friend who tearfully recalled having dinner with Carona and Hoffman, knowing that Carona's wife was unaware of the relationship.

The testimony has focused heavily on Carona's alleged misdeeds, many of them centered on his relationship with Haidl. Prosecutors had planned to introduce what they regarded as their best evidence against Hoffman near the end of the trial. With her removal, they expect to wrap up the prosecution next week.

John Hueston, a former federal prosecutor who once headed the Santa Ana U.S. attorney's office, said a severance is extraordinary and could "prove strategically useful" for Carona and Hoffman.

"Hoffman's prospects for an acquittal brighten considerably, since a Hoffman solo trial would be free of the taint of weeks of prejudicial testimony and evidence relating solely to Carona," he said.

Likewise, Hueston said, Carona's attorneys will be free to attack Hoffman without concern about developing another adverse witness.

According to witnesses who have testified, Hoffman's affair was an open secret for years among Carona's inner circle, and Carona lavished her with gifts, took her to Las Vegas, gave her cash for their hotel rooms and paid half the $400 monthly rent for office space she considered their "love nest." She opened a secret brokerage account for the two of them under the name "Bersagliere of Pacoima." The Bersaglieri were a corps of sharpshooters in the Italian army.

Hoffman is accused of concealing the Bersagliere account, cash and gifts, as well as a $110,000 loan and additional $65,000 in payments -- both provided by Haidl allegedly at Carona's request -- on the economic interest forms she was required to file as a member of a state Juvenile Justice Commission on which both she and Carona served. She also is accused of leaving this financial information off bankruptcy forms she filed with her husband.

Torres-Guillen triggered the severance last week, noting that Hoffman could face up to about six years in prison if convicted.

Carona's attorneys pushed Guilford to resolve the severance question with a motion of their own Tuesday seeking separate trials, arguing that their client would be incriminated by Hoffman's statements to federal agents during an interview in 2005. According to the report of the interview, Hoffman talked candidly about her affair with Carona and some of the allegations in the indictment.

Hanley is a Times staff writer.