A young woman accused of using Stanislaus County Supervisor Jim DeMartini's personal information to obtain two credit cards and ring up a $9,247 tab must stand trial on three felony charges, a judge said Tuesday.
First, the 54-year-old politician endured a second day of questioning about his relationship with 22-year-old Serena Essapour of Turlock, with DeMartini insisting that he and Essapour never have been romantically involved.
Tempers flared as defense attorney Mark Geragos of Los Angeles suggested that DeMartini had not been forthcoming, because DeMartini initially said he took Essapour to lunch three times, but later acknowledged as many as 20 meals at restaurants around the region.
As a preliminary hearing drew to a close in Stanislaus County Superior Court, Geragos argued that DeMartini had consented to Essapour's use of his personal information, because DeMartini helped Essapour get a new car by paying Mistlin Honda $6,500 and co-signing a loan for $21,600 more in June 2005.
"There's clearly consent, because he's the one who co-signed," Geragos said as he asked Judge Thomas Zeff to dismiss the charges Essapour faces, or reduce them to misdemeanors.
Essapour used her name, but DeMartini's Social Security number, to obtain credit cards from Chase and Washington Mutual banks. She made purchases at 107 stores during a 40-day spending spree. The debts were repaid after she was arrested.
Deputy District Attorney Dawna Frenchie argued that a host of frivolous charges -- including $1,500 spent on flowers, balloons and a watch sent to an online acquaintance who lives in Michigan -- show that Essapour did not plan to pay her bills.
The prosecutor noted that there is "room for speculation" about the nature of the relationship between an unlikely couple, but concluded that an alleged romance is irrelevant because Essapour did not have DeMartini's permission when she obtained the cards.
"Whatever Ms. Essapour did to convince Mr. DeMartini to part with $6,500 is really not the focus here," Frenchie said.
DeMartini was alerted to a problem when a third company, Discover Card, called to ask about an application allegedly made by Essapour. He told the court that he put a fraud alert on his accounts and questioned Essapour, who denied involvement until a detective tracked her through the paper trail.
DeMartini said he took a polygraph about his relationship with Essapour because he knew insinuations could be made. The supervisor was terse when Geragos suggested that he take a second test, with an examiner hired by the defense.
"I think one is sufficient," DeMartini said.
"I bet you do," Geragos shot back.
Judge admonishes supervisor
Another heated moment came when Geragos asked DeMartini about a comment he made to The Bee three months ago. The supervisor called the judge a "weenie" because DeMartini was irritated by a second delay in a hearing that began in October but stalled in December and again in January.
Zeff cut off that line of questioning, saying DeMartini's bias toward the court is irrelevant. Moments later, Zeff harshly admonished DeMartini for talking out of turn, because DeMartini continued to answer questions after objections were lodged. He was supposed to wait for the judge's ruling.
"I just told you: When there's an objection, you quit talking," Zeff said. "Is there anything unclear about that? Yes or no?"
The delay that so irritated DeMartini came when Geragos argued that the district attorney's office should acknowledge a conflict of interest and pass the case off to the California attorney general's office, because DeMartini is one of five elected officials who set spending limits for county departments.
Geragos lost that debate, but brought the matter up again by asking DeMartini if he pulled strings with Sheriff Adam Christianson or District Attorney Birgit Fladager to get Essapour prosecuted.
DeMartini said he hasn't talked to either official about the case. He also rejected Geragos' insinuation that he promised to help Frenchie obtain a judgeship in return for prosecuting Essapour in any particular manner.
"I did not know she was running for judge," DeMartini said.
Five new judgeships await appointments by Gov. Schwarzen- egger. The application and selection process is confidential; appointees stand for re-election after they serve their first term.
When the political theater was over, suspicions about Essapour remained and the judge said she should stand trial on false impersonation, misuse of personal identifying information and grand theft. She remains free on $25,000 bail, but is scheduled to return to court April 15 for arraignment.
Bee staff writer Susan Herendeen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2338.