Witness breaks down in Michael Carona trial

The couple who were arguably closer than anyone to former Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona and his wife took center stage at his corruption trial Friday.

Former Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo and Lisa Jaramillo were part of Carona’s inner circle since his first campaign for sheriff in 1998: George ran the campaign and Lisa was chief fundraiser. And they did just about everything with the Caronas for the next six years.

Now, they have emerged as Carona’s chief accusers in what the government says was a broad conspiracy by Carona and others, including his wife, Deborah, and longtime mistress, Debra Hoffman, to essentially sell access to the sheriff’s office for more than $700,000 in cash and gifts.

Carona and Hoffman are being tried together. Deborah Carona is awaiting separate trial. George Jaramillo has pleaded guilty to lesser charges and is awaiting sentencing. He and his wife are cooperating with prosecutors in the case against Carona.

Lisa Jaramillo broke down in tears early in her testimony when she started talking about the relationship between Hoffman and Carona.

“The reason I’m having a difficult time answering this is, I wasn’t a good friend to Debbie Carona and I know she’s sitting out there,” Lisa Jaramillo said, looking at Carona’s wife in the gallery. “I don’t know if it is appropriate or not, but I’m very sorry . . . for some of the stuff I have to say today, but I can’t lie.”

Deborah Carona sat straight-faced as she listened to her old friend. U.S. District Judge Andrew J. Guilford granted a short recess so Jaramillo could regain her composure, and during the break Hoffman’s attorney asked for a mistrial, arguing her client had been prejudiced. Guilford denied the motion.

Back on the stand, Lisa Jaramillo testified that the former sheriff had lavished Hoffman with gifts -- a strand of pearls, a wristwatch, a gold bracelet and a tennis bracelet made of gold and diamonds. He also took her shopping, Jaramillo said, for shoes and clothes.

Hoffman also traveled to Las Vegas with Carona when he was invited by businessman Dick Marconi to attend a boxing match featuring Oscar De La Hoya. The Jaramillos were also invited, she said, and Carona asked her not to tell their host that Hoffman had traveled with them. Lisa Jaramillo said that as far as she knew, Marconi picked up the tab for all of them to stay at the Bellagio.

Lisa Jaramillo said Carona was aware that donations to his first campaign were being laundered by Don Haidl, a Newport Beach businessman. She told jurors that Carona was so grateful for Haidl’s help that he was going to get county supervisors to change the rules so that he could appoint Haidl as an assistant sheriff, even though he’d never held a position in law enforcement.

The conversation took place, she said, in Lake Tahoe, where the Caronas, the Jaramillos and the Haidls went to celebrate after the “long, hard fight” of the campaign. Carona told her that “Don had put his neck on the line for me,” Jaramillo said, “and he talked about repaying him for that.”

Jurors were also shown a video of a private ceremony in which Carona swears in his new assistant sheriffs -- Haidl and George Jaramillo -- and gives them gold badges with personal messages inscribed on the back.

Jaramillo’s read: “To Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo. My friend, my brother and my chief of staff.”

In testimony earlier Friday, accountant George Feles testified that he jokingly referred to Jaramillo as “the Great Satan,” but that the nickname became more serious as he got to know the assistant sheriff better. Feles said he believed Jaramillo was manipulative and dishonest.

Hanley is a Times staff writer.