Jeff Jardine

Old story has new players, odd twist

A politician and a former intern.

We've been down this road before — first with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, and then with Gary Condit and Chandra Levy.

In fact, during the summer of 2001, Condit came home on his congressional summer break trailed by a media horde because of his relationship with Levy, a former Bureau of Prisons intern from Modesto who had disappeared in Washington, D.C., that spring.

Among Condit's biggest critics was Jim DeMartini, who led the Stanislaus County Republican Central Committee and is now a county supervisor.

"He sure seems like a guy with something to hide," DeMartini said in July 2001. "Condit's brought it all on himself. He's never been open and forthright about his relationship with (Levy). He went from being a guy who shot himself in the foot to a guy in a wheelchair. And now he's on life support."

Strange, how it works. DeMartini is now embroiled in an interesting circumstance of his own.

Serena Essapour, a 21-year-old Turlock woman and Turlock Journal reporter, is accused of impersonating DeMartini. She is charged with identity theft, misuse of personal information and grand theft by using his information to obtain credit cards. According to DeMartini, Essapour ran up about $10,000 in charges, with some of the bills going to her Turlock home — that after DeMartini had helped her by giving her $6,500 to buy a car.

Among the weird aspects of this case:

I've seen Elvis impersonators, but never a Jim DeMartini mimic.

Mark Geragos — a high-profile attorney from Los Angeles who represented Condit and later Scott Peterson — is defending Essapour.

And in this one, the politician — not the young woman — appears to be the victim.

But that doesn't mean DeMartini will come out unscathed, and considering some of the things he's done to merit political retribution, he should have known better.

DeMartini helped orchestrate a hit-piece mailer against Gary Lopez, who opposed Supervisor Jeff Grover in the November election.

He also managed to find a seat near the prosecutors, on the other side of the courtroom security wall, to "experience the moment" he hoped would be a conviction on corruption charges against former Modesto Mayor Carmen Sabatino. Instead, a hung jury forced the case to end in a mistrial.

And having witnessed the Condit madness of 2001, DeMartini is well aware that any time a politician has any kind of dealings with a younger woman, people draw conclusions and make assumptions about the nature and depth of the relationship.

"So far, nobody's even suggested that," DeMartini said. "All the evidence points to nothing there."

DeMartini, I'm told, took Essapour to lunch on numerous occasions. That in itself suggests nothing more, but it certainly leaves the opening for questions.

Why would a seasoned political junkie like DeMartini, who is married, give money with no expectation of repayment to Essapour so she could buy a car?

She had been in an auto accident, spent time in the hospital and her car was totaled. She needed help, DeMartini said.

DeMartini said he first heard from Essapour several years ago, when she called the Central Republican Committee to say she was moving to the valley from New York and was looking for work.

"The Central Committee had a little part-time work on the computer (with a program) nobody knew how to operate," DeMartini said.

She worked there briefly and then began a string of jobs, hiring on for a short time as a public-policy researcher for local land-use attorney George Petrulakis.

From May until September 2004, she was an intern for Assemblyman Greg Aghazarian, R-Stockton, according to the Assembly Rules office. She also worked for Sen. Jeff Denham, and in a Turlock law office.

DeMartini said she told him and others that she attended Stanford University, and that is consistent with what she apparently told the Assembly Rules office, which hires interns for Assembly members.

Susan Maher of Stanford's registrar's office told me Essapour never attended the university.

Nor did Essapour tell her bosses at the Turlock Journal that she'd been arrested, was out on bail and faced criminal charges before taking over the police and courts beat, the paper reported.

Cases like this one seldom come down to a few basic facts. There are twists and turns, and there always seems to be a back story.

It was that way with Clinton and Lewinsky, and with Condit and Levy. I suspect it will be that way in this one, too.

And while DeMartini is the victim of alleged identity and grand theft, he broke the cardinal rule of politics at any level.

He allowed himself to get close to a young woman, and he could pay for it — with interest.

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