Attorney Creighton Laz offers nothing more than a sly smile when asked if his client Rhonda Carmony will testify this week when he presents the defense in her election fraud trial.
“You know I can’t answer that question,” Laz said, as he gathered up his papers in Superior Court last week.
If Carmony, 27, takes the witness stand, it would for the first time provide her version of what happened when Republicans recruited a decoy candidate to splinter the Democratic vote and help ensure a GOP victory in the critical election to recall and replace former Republican Speaker Doris Allen.
At stake was control of the Assembly and the likelihood that Garden Grove Republican Curt Pringle would become speaker.
The defense maintains that Pringle chief of staff Jeff Flint directed the effort to recruit a second Democrat and that Carmony at most was marginally involved but did nothing illegal.
If she testifies, Carmony would certainly be asked about a telephone exchange with Flint on Sept. 21, 1995, a few hours before the 5 p.m. candidate filing deadline.
Carmony called Flint back a few minutes later but spoke with two other GOP aides in the Pringle campaign office who both worked for Flint. They agreed to help Carmony gather signatures for the stealth candidate, Laurie Campbell, according to testimony by the aides.
The two aides--Mark Denny and Jeff Gibson--maintained they did so without checking with Flint or Pringle. The two aides also testified they believed at the time that putting a second Democrat on the ballot was either ill-conceived or could cost Pringle the speakership if it were revealed.
Pringle and Flint also are among prospective defense witnesses. Both have maintained that they had nothing to do with the scheme.
Testimony in the trial so far has been filled with contradictory statements and vague recollections.
Several witnesses gave testimony sharply at odds with what they told investigators in 1995 or to grand juries that investigated the 67th Assembly recall effort.
Lawyers on both sides openly acknowledge the jury’s knotty task, and believe that witnesses might be lying to protect themselves, their friends or bosses.
“You are going to have to resolve conflicting testimony,” Laz said in his opening statement to the jury two weeks ago. “There is going to be testimony from a lot of people who will try and minimize their involvement to try and make themselves look better.”
Brent Romney, who used to be a gang prosecutor, said trying this case is like handling a jailhouse stabbing.
“Many of the witnesses have an agenda,” he said in an interview Friday at the courthouse. “This is a difficult case and is like any type of in-custody jail stabbing or gang case where many witnesses have an agenda or bias or reason not to tell the truth.”
Carmony, campaign director and fiancee of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), is charged with falsely making a nominating petition, falsely filing a nominating petition and conspiring to falsely file a nominating petition.
Prosecutors allege that she persuaded other Republican aides to gather Democratic voters’ signatures on Campbell’s nominating petitions, knowing the aides 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.
For the scheme to work, Campbell needed to sign the papers to conceal that GOP aides had actually gathered the nominating petition signatures.
Three GOP aides last year pleaded guilty to misdemeanor violations of making a false nomination paper. Gibson, Denny and Richard Martin all were fined and sentenced to probation for circulating the petitions and not signing them.
The scheme came together in Campbell’s car at the registrar of voters office a few minutes before the filing deadline. Campbell signed the petitions brought to her by GOP aides. In the car with her were Gibson and Carmony.
Gibson testified that he watched as Carmony filled in missing addresses next to voters’ names and instructed Campbell to sign the petitions.
Campbell, however, testified last week that Carmony was a virtual bystander, saying nothing while Gibson gave all the directions and handed her all the petitions. “Rhonda didn’t say anything,” she said.
That testimony contradicted previous statements by Campbell implicating Carmony to either the grand jury or investigators.
Prosecutors believe Campbell might have wanted to help not only Carmony but also the eventual victor in the special election, Assemblyman Scott Baugh (R-Huntington Beach).
Baugh faces multiple felony charges for allegedly falsifying his campaign election reports, including failing to report a $1,000 contribution from Campbell.
Prosecutors allege Baugh omitted the contribution to hide his connection to Campbell, which was not revealed until after the election.
Campbell testified she has been a “very close friend” of Baugh since 1986. Baugh is a protege of Rohrabacher, who endorsed the candidate among three other Republicans in the race to replace Allen.
Romney declined to comment on whether Campbell will be prosecuted. She agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in exchange for a promise that she would not face felony charges.
If Carmony testifies, Flint and Pringle might be hanging on her words. Carmony could implicate Flint or others in her testimony.
Another Rohrabacher aide, Jeff Butler, has already told the grand jury that Flint was the one who decided that Laurie Campbell should sign the petitions to conceal GOP involvement.
But Denny and Gibson contradicted that testimony. Butler is also among prospective defense witnesses.
Romney said prosecutors could reevaluate Flint’s liability. “We would look at any of the testimony of any of the witnesses and evaluate if additional evidence would shed light on the culpability of anyone else and make a decision at that time,” he said.
The defense is expected to emphasize that even if Carmony recruited GOP aides to circulate the petitions, Carmony broke no law unless she instructed them either not to sign the petitions or told someone else to do so.
A possible problem for the defense, however, could be explaining the testimony of Democrat George Rundall. He is the only witness to say that Carmony asked him to sign a petition for Campbell. That petition, bearing only Rundall’s name, was among those that were signed by Campbell and filed with the registrar.