Jurors observe the women in Carona’s life

With tawdry moments that might play better to a Jerry Springer audience, jurors in Orange County are being introduced to the alleged sexual escapades and innuendoes that prosecutors say shape the corruption case against former Sheriff Michael S. Carona.

With his trial hardly a week old, witnesses have been repeatedly asked about Carona’s alleged extramarital affair with a local attorney, with tales of a love nest, a getaway trip to Las Vegas and a secret bank account. There has been testimony about an alleged romance with a second woman, a tearful breakdown on the witness stand and a witness’ apology to Carona’s wife for the testimony she was about to offer.

There was even testimony about a pair of birthday cards Carona mailed to the wife of an assistant sheriff and signed “The Little Sheriff,” which she told jurors was a sexual reference.

To prosecutors, testimony of infidelity and lust is critical to the government’s case as they attempt to show that beneath Carona’s public image as a conservative, Christian, crime-fighter, he was a womanizer partly motivated by a desire to keep his longtime mistress happy by supplying her with money and perks he gained by compromising his elected office.

Carona’s attorneys conceded in their opening statement that their client might have made mistakes in his personal life, but they urged jurors to keep in mind that any moral indiscretions are not evidence of corruption. They have argued that the inclusion of Carona’s love affairs is gratuitous and prejudicial.

The 11-man, one-woman federal court jury does not have to look far to see the women in Carona’s life. Every day in court, Carona and his mistress, Debra Hoffman, sit at separate defense tables, one behind the other as they face charges that they conspired with others to trade his powers as sheriff for their own profit. Deborah Carona, the ex-sheriff’s wife, watches from the gallery, usually alone in a mostly empty courtroom. She awaits a separate trial.

In the first three days of the trial, jurors were told that Carona had been cheating on his wife for years with Hoffman, who a witness says set up a savings account for the two of them with an Italian name in the hopes it would not be discovered. They were also told that Carona lavished Hoffman with jewelry, treated her to shopping sprees and took her to Las Vegas on private jets.

Testimony has come from a pilot, an accountant, even a tailor. But the most lurid testimony came from Lisa Jaramillo, the wife of former Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo. Her testimony is expected to resume this morning..

For years, Lisa Jaramillo testified that she and her husband took vacations with the Caronas and shared dinners, birthdays and holidays. But Carona’s attraction to Hoffman, an attorney, created an awkward dynamic, Jaramillo testified.

She testified that she and her husband were drawn into a double life, going out with the Caronas one night and then with Carona and Hoffman the next. Jaramillo said she told Carona and Hoffman that she disapproved of the affair, but he told her not to worry because he would never leave his wife for another woman. Separately, she testified, Hoffman apologized but said she loved Carona.

Jaramillo testified that Carona also had an affair with her sister, Erika Hill, who worked for Hoffman’s law firm as well as on Carona’s campaign for sheriff. U.S. District Judge Andrew J. Guilford later told jurors to disregard the testimony about the relationship with Hill but allowed a statement that Lisa Jaramillo recalled Carona making to Hill in the hallway outside of campaign headquarters during the campaign of 1998.

“Sweetheart, if anyone goes to jail, it’s going to be me, not you,” Carona said, according to the testimony. The exchange, she said, referred to illegal contributions that were being laundered into Carona’s first campaign.

Perhaps the most bizarre testimony came as Senior Assistant U.S. Atty. Kenneth Julian tried to establish that a close friendship eventually developed between Lisa Jaramillo and Carona. During questioning, she confirmed that Carona had twice given her birthday cards signed by “The Sheriff, Mrs. Sheriff and The Little Sheriff.” The latter, she explained, was a reference to the sheriff’s genitals.

The messages on the birthday cards was projected onto monitors in the courtroom for jurors to see.

For a few uncomfortable minutes, Deborah Carona’s presence in the courtroom seemed to distract Lisa Jaramillo. She began to weep and then apologized to the sheriff’s wife for not being a better friend. A recess was called as she collected herself.

During the break, Carona’s attorneys moved for a mistrial based on the statements about Hill’s alleged relationship with Carona. And Hoffman’s attorney moved separately for a mistrial based on the show of emotion by Lisa Jaramillo, saying it prejudiced her client. Guilford denied both requests.

Hanley is a Times staff writer.