The mistress, the wife and the O.C. sheriff
Preparations were underway for Deborah Carona’s 50th birthday party when the host learned who would be attending the party. He was stunned.
Among the guests invited to the celebration for the wife of Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona was the lawman’s mistress, Debra V. Hoffman.
“I said, ‘If you’re going to invite her, I’m not going to have it at my house,’ ” Joseph Cavallo said he told the sheriff, then a close friend and political ally. The two have since parted ways and Cavallo was recently sentenced to jail in a kickback scheme involving bail bond agents.
The sheriff relented and Hoffman did not attend.
But friends and associates of the sheriff said the 2001 birthday bash -- midway into Carona’s first term and not long before Larry King dubbed him “America’s sheriff” -- was indicative of the frenzied lifestyle that Carona was juggling as he ran the state’s second-largest sheriff’s department.
Deborah Carona was a member of a moneyed and prominent family that was mentioned as a point of reference in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” Debra Hoffman was a struggling but charming attorney, 15 years younger than the sheriff’s wife. Their lives bumped together often.
Both women appeared at official functions together, the wife often sitting in the first row, Hoffman in the second. Photographers working for the Sheriff’s Department sometimes snapped photos of the two women together and sometimes of both posing with the sheriff.
But just beyond public view, associates say, the sheriff’s behavior with his mistress was reckless, even defiant: a trip to Las Vegas, text messages and pet names.
Now, Carona, his wife and mistress have been accused in a broad public conspiracy case that alleges that the sheriff sold his office for a stream of gifts and money. All three have pleaded not guilty and said they expect to prevail at trial. Carona, his wife and Hoffman all declined to be interviewed for this story.
On the morning after he was charged, Carona was ushered into a courtroom ordinarily reserved for drug runners, bank robbers -- the sorts of alleged criminals the sheriff had spent years trying to sweep off the streets.
The two Debbies sat nearby. Like the sheriff, they were in handcuffs.
Twenty-year-old Mike Carona was stuck stocking shelves at the Sunrise Market in Los Angeles County, working alongside his teenage wife and trying to make ends meet. But his young wife said in an interview with the Times that she knew Carona already had his eyes on another woman.
The other woman was Deborah Belasco, the daughter of a former California deputy attorney general and a member of a theater family that is mentioned in Fitzgerald’s novel and included the prolific playwright and theater owner David Belasco.
Carona’s then-wife, Janna, said she suspected she was losing her husband just six months after they married in 1975. She noticed a canceled check for flowers she never received. Half a year later, the marriage was over.
She chalked it up to her husband’s ambition. He was “kind, positive and upbea,” but he played “all the right cards, all the time,” she said. “That was just his personality.”
Carona took a job as a deputy marshal in 1977, spending the next decade working his way up the chain of command.
Debbie Belasco’s best friend at the time, Nancy Clark, said she has no idea whether Belasco became romantic with Carona while he was still married.
“I just remember they were very, very happy and very in love,” Clark said.
Clark said they enjoyed a romance with simple pleasures and that Belasco never flaunted her family’s connections.
“None of us had much money back then. So we would get together and eat spaghetti, go to the beach and listen to music,” she said.
Belasco was an admirer of Jackson Browne and Emmylou Harris, lived in a spartan Newport Beach apartment and drove “some old beater” around the county. “She was sort of a hippie,” Clark said.
When Belasco married Carona in 1980, Clark helped her plan a modest ceremony for about 100 guests at an Irvine park. It was followed by a reception with music by a local rock band.
The new Deborah Carona worked at the public defender’s office for a couple of years before becoming a probation officer. One of her old bosses remembers her well. “Even though you could tell she came from money, she dealt very well with people on probation and didn’t mind doing it at all,” said Harold Cook. “She was very polite and never dressed flashy. She sort of dressed like the Kennedy women.”
As Mike Carona climbed the ladder at the Orange County marshal’s office, his wife maintained her job and focused on raising their son. “She was very much a background person,” said Clark, who is an advocate for alternative sentences for drug offenders. “A lot of women in this county would have had some creases erased from their face and go shopping. She didn’t do that.”
But one former co-worker said Deborah Carona’s work began to slacken after her husband became Orange County sheriff in 1999.
“She basically didn’t work,” said Bruce Moore, a retired probation officer who worked in a cubicle alongside her before she retired in 2004 after 25 years. Her days started late and ended early, he said, adding she was rarely seen with anyone on probation who was assigned to her caseload.
Several other people who socialized with the Caronas described the sheriff’s wife as dour, driven and enamored with the power and perks of her husband’s job. Friends, however, strongly reject such descriptions, saying she may be reserved, but is a warm stalwart for those close to her. She was a fitness enthusiast, partial to the stationary bike. At her gym, she was the sit-up champion, able to complete more than 300 at a time.
When her husband launched his 1998 campaign for sheriff, Moore said, she began to talk to co-workers about the favors that came with politics, such as dinners on expensive yachts in Newport Beach hosted by his supporters. Moore said she arrived at work one day in a St. John Knits suit that she said had been given to her by a donor. “It caused something of a commotion among the women in the office,” Moore said.
According to the federal corruption indictment that landed the sheriff, his wife and his mistress in court, Deborah Carona accepted a $1,500 St. John Knits suit and a $15,000 gold and diamond Cartier watch from her husband’s supporters, gifts beyond the legal limit which the couple failed to report on financial disclosure forms.
In 2001, the sheriff persuaded then-Gov. Gray Davis to appoint his wife to the board of directors that oversees the Orange County Fair and Exposition Center, a sprawling piece of property in Costa Mesa that is home to the county fair, weekly swap meets and summertime concerts.
While serving on the fair board this year, Deborah Carona voted to allow a paintball company to open a business on the property, according to board records. Federal prosecutors allege in the indictment that officials with the paintball business had paid $25,000 in cash to a Carona associate in 2000 after learning that Carona would use his influence as sheriff to assist the paintball business.
“I don’t believe a word of it,” Clark said. “There is no way that Debbie is a cold, calculating, manipulative person.”
Carona met Debra Hoffman during his campaign for sheriff in 1998. Hoffman operated a law firm with George Jaramillo, then one of Carona’s key supporters. The law office became a frequent meeting spot for Carona strategists during the campaign.
Some said Hoffman looked much like Carona’s wife when she was younger. Despite Hoffman’s concerns about the commotion the campaign caused at the law firm, it wasn’t long before she and Carona became close, according to several people who knew the couple.
After Carona took office in 1999, he and Hoffman were seen together on trips to Las Vegas and Sacramento, according to sources familiar with the trips who asked not be identified because they didn’t want their statements to become a part of the case. She visited his office in the sheriff’s headquarters and changed her hairstyle and started wearing a vanilla-scented perfume that Carona favored, the sources said.
One of Hoffman’s old friends, who asked not to be identified because she didn’t want to be involved in the criminal case, said the couple referred to one another in text messages as “LOML” -- “love of my life.” They spoke about a life together.
Like Carona, Hoffman was married. She and her husband, Robert Schroff, have an 11-year-old daughter. In Carona’s second year in office, the department hired her husband, which entitled Hoffman and her daughter to medical benefits. Schroff is still employed by the department, earning $55,000 per year as a painter on the maintenance staff.
Hoffman’s attorney, Sylvia Torres-Guillen of the Federal Public Defender’s Office, declined to comment on the facts of the case or on federal prosecutors’ unusual decision to describe Hoffman as the sheriff’s “longtime mistress” in the indictment.
“It’s unfortunate that there is such a focus on the salacious details that have nothing to do with the case. What we’re interested in is telling the jury what truly happened and why she’s not guilty of the charges,” Torres-Guillen said.
In September 1999, an Orange County businessman gave Carona ringside tickets to the Oscar De La Hoya-Felix Trinidad boxing match at the Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas. Federal prosecutors allege that Carona failed to report the fight tickets as a gift on his conflict-of-interest disclosure forms filed in 2000.
According to sources familiar with that trip, the sheriff brought Debra Hoffman with him and stayed at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. He attended the fight with Jaramillo while Hoffman and Jaramillo’s wife went to see “O,” the long-running Cirque du Soleil show at the Bellagio.
The sheriff took steps not to be seen with Hoffman in public during the Las Vegas getaway. He didn’t take her to a dinner that weekend at Aqua restaurant, but he left the table with an unopened bottle of wine, according to the sources who asked not to be identified for fear their statements could be used in court. According to a campaign finance statement, Carona used campaign funds to pay a $577 dinner tab at Aqua between September and December 1999.
One former Carona ally recalled a 1999 dinner party in Beverly Hills that attracted television news cameras.
“I went and grabbed Debra Hoffman and pulled her away from Mike so they wouldn’t end up on TV together,” he said.
In January 2000, Carona wrote Davis, recommending that Hoffman be named to the California Council on Criminal Justice. Hoffman had no law enforcement experience. According to state records, the sheriff and Hoffman sometimes stayed at the same hotel when they went to Sacramento for meetings.
Hoffman seemed to struggle professionally. She was twice sued for legal malpractice, court records show. In one case the firm agreed to pay $11,000 to settle a lawsuit brought by a former client, court records show. The second case was dismissed and it is unclear if a settlement was paid because the case file was destroyed.
As the firm foundered, so did Hoffman’s finances. She and her husband declared bankruptcy in 2001, listing $387,000 in debt and $24,000 in assets.
But the federal indictment suggests Carona helped provide a soft landing.
In the years leading up to the bankruptcy, her law firm accepted a $110,000 loan from Don Haidl, a wealthy businessman who helped bankroll Carona’s campaign and was later appointed assistant sheriff. Haidl also wrote Hoffman seven checks totaling $65,000 in 1999 and 2000, according to the indictment.
Carona gave $6,500 to Hoffman in 2000, according to the indictment. By 2003, Hoffman and her husband were living in a $1-million Newport Beach home owned by a company controlled by David Gelbaum, a wealthy former hedge fund manager who has donated more than $3 million to the Mike Carona Foundation, which sends underprivileged children to camp.
Neither Gelbaum nor Hoffman would discuss the living arrangements. The house is across the street from Gelbaum’s primary residence.
According to Orange County property records, the home is owned by Kaziikini, a limited liability company that Gelbaum founded that is also listed as the owner of Gelbaum’s residence.
Throughout the years, the two women seemed friendly toward each other. At least in public.
At appearances, the Caronas acted “like any other couple who had been married a long time,” said a former sheriff’s employee. “They were considerate of each other and they’d talk. Mike was the ultimate politician and he was always out working the room.”
Privately, the Caronas were said to be bonded by their son, a bright, athletic, outgoing and confident 17-year-old, according to those who know the family.
The sheriff, whose first wife said he once balked at the thought of fatherhood when he discovered her prenatal vitamins -- although she was not pregnant -- is universally described as a warm and supportive parent. In recent years, he spoke of writing a book on fatherhood. His wife is said to be equally devoted.
In the weeks before the indictment, federal prosecutors gave Carona an option to save his wife and mistress. If he were to plead guilty, they wouldn’t prosecute his wife and would be lenient to Hoffman, according to sources familiar with the negotiations.
He chose to fight the charges.
After their first court hearing, Carona and his wife walked hand in hand past a throng of television cameras and news reporters. Both held their heads high, seemingly exuding confidence.
Hoffman trailed behind, a coat over her head, shielding her face from onlookers, and hurried down the street.
Researcher John Jackson contributed to this report.