The longtime mistress of former Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona considered her law office a “love nest” for herself and Carona, and set up a savings account for the two of them under an obscure name because she thought that would help keep it secret, according to a witness at Carona’s corruption trial.
“It was my understanding this account was to hide money from everybody,” George Feles testified Thursday.
Feles, an accountant, provided the first intimate details of the affair between Carona and Debra V. Hoffman. Their relationship had been rumored for years but was not confirmed until last year when the government disclosed the romance in its indictment.
Other witnesses testified Thursday that Carona’s wife knew about a campaign money-laundering scheme, and that Carona let former Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl pick up the $5,000 tab for custom-made suits and shirts.
Carona and Hoffman are on trial on charges they traded the powers of his office for more than $700,000 in cash and gifts for themselves and others, including Carona’s wife and former assistant sheriffs Haidl and George Jaramillo. Haidl and Jaramillo have pleaded guilty to lesser charges and have been cooperating with the government for more than a year. Deborah Carona awaits a separate trial.
Jeff Rawitz and Brian A. Sun of the law firm Jones Day, which is representing Carona free of charge, maintain that the government’s case will crumble because it is built on unreliable witnesses, including convicted felons and perjurers who victimized the sheriff in their own race for money and power. These witnesses are now making allegations against Carona because they are hoping to win leniency in their own corruption cases, the lawyers say.
Feles, who took the stand late Thursday, said he knew Hoffman because he did the books for the law partnership of Jaramillo, Hoffman and Associates, when the firm was used as the headquarters of Carona’s first campaign in 1998. Feles said his office and the law firm were in the same Santa Ana building.
After Hoffman left the partnership and went into solo practice, Feles said he remained a friend and visited her at her new office. He described it as a “small, cramped space” inside a preschool that “looked like you were looking into the back of a closet.”
While he was there, Feles testified, Hoffman confided to him that she had been having an affair with Carona. He said he was surprised to learn “that they had been together for quite some time,” dating back to when she and Jaramillo were partners.
Hoffman told him that she and Carona would rendezvous at the new office, Feles testified, and that she referred to it as “a love nest, or something like that.”
Feles also testified that he agreed to help set up a company called Bersagliere of Pacoima. He said Hoffman told him the purpose was to “put money in the account so her and Mr. Carona could have something later.”
Feles is expected to resume his testimony today.
In earlier testimony Thursday, Haidl’s longtime pilot said Deborah Carona was aware that money was being laundered into her husband’s first campaign in a scheme to flout a law limiting individual contributions to $1,000.
The pilot, Mark Dilullo, said that Deborah Carona was present when he handed a batch of five $1,000 checks to Haidl at his Newport Beach home, and that she witnessed Haidl reimbursing him with cash. Deborah Carona was keeping a ledger and taking notes, Dilullo testified.
“Mr. Haidl gave me the money in front of Mrs. Carona, put the checks down in front of Mrs. Carona, and there was accounting going on at the time,” Dilullo said under cross-examination by Rawitz.
Dilullo said he went along with the plan, and encouraged others, including his own parents, to write checks even though he knew it was illegal.
Under further questioning, Dilullo testified that as far as he knew, Haidl had nothing but good intentions when he expanded a reserve deputy program. The goal was to bring in business executives and other professionals who would volunteer their time, skills and resources to the department.
Dilullo was followed on the witness stand by Prtap Chugh, Haidl’s longtime tailor. He testified that in 1998 and 1999, Carona ordered nearly $5,000 worth of custom-made suits and shirts paid for by Haidl.
Chugh, who has been in business in San Bernardino County for 17 years, said he first met Carona in June 1998, when he was summoned to Haidl’s home to measure Carona and Jaramillo. The jury was shown pictures taken that day of both the men’s postures, and copies of orders and invoices that backed up his testimony.
Carona ordered three suits and three shirts that month, Chugh testified, at a cost of $3,491. Jaramillo ordered three suits and four shirts. Haidl paid for both orders, Chugh said.
The following year, Haidl spent $1,346.88 for an additional suit and three shirts for Carona, according to Chugh and documents shown in court.
Chugh also said he wrote a $1,000 campaign check for Carona at Haidl’s request, and was later reimbursed. Chugh said he was repaid for his donation by billing Haidl through his business. At the time, he had not met Carona and said he would not have made the contribution if Haidl had not promised to pay him back.
Hanley is a Times staff writer.