SANTA ANA, Calif. -- Federal charges were dropped Thursday against the wife and former mistress of ex-Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona, prompting both women to complain that they had been used as pawns in a political prosecution that ultimately failed.
Carona's wife and Debra Hoffman, an attorney who, according to testimony at trial, once shared a "love nest" with the former sheriff, said they were brought into the case solely as leverage by overzealous prosecutors.
"It's a very bittersweet victory," Deborah Carona said. "My life has been put through hell. I truly feel that these baseless charges were brought against me so I would be a hostage.
"The lies that were told over and over again became the truth and the truth became the lies, and I think you guys, even as a media, haven't sorted all that out yet," Deborah Carona said.
Hoffman teared up while reading a statement and said she was feeling "very emotional."
"This case should never have been brought," Hoffman said. "This case has cost the taxpayers millions of dollars -- for what?"
Hoffman said she was "was nothing more than a pawn in this politically motivated case. I was simply collateral damage."
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The women had both faced the same federal conspiracy charge leveled against Carona. An 11-man, one-woman panel acquitted him of the charge on Jan. 16.
That count alleged that the three joined in a conspiracy to sell the power and perks of the sheriff's office by accepting cash, gifts and bribes from businessman Don Haidl, making him an assistant sheriff despite a lack of law enforcement background and providing him a so-called "get-out-of-jail-free" card.
Debra Hoffman had also faced mail fraud and bankruptcy fraud charges.
In addition to the conspiracy count, the ex-sheriff was acquitted of three counts of mail fraud and a witness tampering charge. He was found guilty of a second witness tampering count for trying to get Haidl to mislead the grand jury -- in conversations secretly recorded by Haidl -- that investigated the case.
The motion to dismiss the charges against the women was filed "in the interest of justice" by Assistant U.S. Attorney Ken Julian. The prosecutor also cited the jury's acquittal of Mike Carona on the conspiracy charge. After U.S. District Judge Andrew Guilford dismissed the case, Deborah Carona told him that she should never have been indicted.
"As a woman, as a wife and as a mother, I have gone through an ordeal that has been a really horrific time for me," she told the the judge.
Deborah Carona said she had been a probation officer for 25 years, yet during her first court appearance had been chained and "shackled like a murderer."
"We're correcting a wrong," she told the judge. "I don't believe I should ever have been here."
Hoffman told reporters outside the courthouse that prosecutors offered her a deal in December 2007 that would "be based on corroboration of the federal government's lies. I stand for truth and justice. They wanted me to corroborate their lies. I refused to do that."
She said federal prosecutors "bet on the fact that 98 percent of their victims cannot afford to wage a defense" and "beat their targets into submission."
During the hearing, Mike Carona's attorneys said they will bring a number of motions, asking Guilford to set aside his conviction on the single count and for a new trial on that charge.
Defense attorney Jeff Rawitz said he will ask the judge to declare that Haidl, the main witness against the ex-sheriff, perjured himself during his more than 10 days on the witness stand.
Haidl earlier pleaded guilty to a tax charge in exchange for cooperating with the government in the hope of getting a lighter sentence, Rawitz said, but the agreement called for testifying truthfully.
Haidl was caught in a lie when he testified that he had been coached by Carona and former Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo on how to get around campaign contribution limits, the defense attorney said.
Haidl said he was told he could get friends, relatives and associates to write $1,000 checks to Carona, during his first run for sheriff in 1998, and that Haidl could then reimburse the checks with cash, which would hide the fact that he was the source of the funds. Haidl testified that he laundered about $30,000 in contributions for Carona in that manner.
But at the end of the trial, a statement from Armando Camarena, a former worker for Haidl, was read in court. He said he had helped Haidl similarly contribute funds in earlier campaigns of politicians in Los Angeles County.
Rawitz said that if Guilford determined that Haidl violated the terms of his agreement, he could be prosecuted for perjury in connection with all of the 64 "overt" acts that make up the conspiracy count, as well as the tax count.
"They have a confession," Rawitz said, indicating Haidl's testimony at trial.
Julian told the judge that Rawitz has "no standing" to bring such a motion. "This is completely irrelevant," the prosecutor said.
Outside the courtroom, Julian said that both Haidl and Jaramillo, who pleaded guilty to tax and mail fraud counts, will likely be sentenced after Carona, who is set for sentencing on April 27.
Julian said prosecutors will "seek substantial jail time," but declined to say how much.
Defense attorneys said they will argue for probation and for Carona to remain free pending appeal.
Rawitz said he believes an appeals court will overturn the single count by ruling that the secret tape-recordings that form the basis for the conviction should have been suppressed.
The defense argued during trial that prosecutors improperly sent Haidl to secretly record Carona because the ex-sheriff was represented by an attorney at that time and any contact should go through the lawyer.
Julian said he did not believe the appeals court will suppress the tapes.