The Michael Roberts-Jim Toledano Sting Stinks
Dick and Bo Marconi aren't a typical Orange County couple. Sure, they are fabulously wealthy, thanks to proceeds from their nutritional-supplement empire, tilt Republican, donate generously to charities, own automobiles worth $30 million and hobnob with international celebrities. They even live on an impressive 600-acre San Juan Capistrano ranch.
But as newly released court records demonstrate, the Marconis don't share a trait often found among their class: They aren't anti-gay. They've repeatedly welcomed gay men into their inner circle. So it's ironic that Corona del Mar fitness trainer Michael Roberts, once the gay man closest to the Marconis, is now persona non grata to them.
How that relationship crumbled into a fiasco remains bitterly disputed. Some facts are certain, though: This drama involves the hint of secret sexual liaisons, undercover cops, luxurious foreign vacations, impotence, surreptitious recordings, the sale of high-priced exotic cactus, love letters, herpes, a retired Secret Service agent, cries of betrayal and extortion, and a green duffel bag stuffed with $360,000.
Ugly on both sides, the dispute was slowly playing out in negotiations between the parties (though no lawsuit had been filed) when law enforcement decided to take sides—after conferring only with the Marconis. The cops didn't just back the couple. Without the knowledge of Roberts—or his lawyer, Jim Toledano—the Marconis, the Marconis' lawyer, prosecutors and Newport Beach police detectives laid a trap to establish an extortion case against Roberts and Toledano, according to court records and multiple interviews with knowledgeable sources.
That trap not only culminated in the June 2008 arrests of Roberts and Toledano, the former chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party. But it also crushed their hopes of forcing Bo Marconi to pay for what they believed was her liability for destroying Roberts' livelihood. Worse, both Roberts and Toledano now face potential prison time if convicted at an upcoming trial in Judge James Marion's courtroom.
I've studied the case for more than a year, and it's easy to see why the Marconis come off as more sympathetic characters, if for no other reason than Roberts doesn't seem to be able to always suppress his temper.
According to the Marconis, Roberts—whom Dick treated like a son for about a decade and allowed to live on his ranch—fell out of favor and was asked to move off the property because he'd become unpleasant. Court records show the couple suspected Roberts of using and selling party drugs. After moving out, Roberts made hundreds of angry telephone calls to complain and threaten a lawsuit. Bo fretted that Roberts, her longtime travel companion, carried a Glock pistol that had been given to him as a gift by Dick. They hired an ex-Secret Service agent for protection.
Roberts tells a different story. While he admits he made plenty of angry phone calls, he says he was booted from the estate because of a plot by Bo to smear him. Court records show that Roberts told Toledano that he and Bo engaged in a three-and-a-half-year sexual relationship behind an at-times-impotent Dick's back before the couple's 2003 marriage. (Now in his late 70s, Dick is 25 years older than Bo.) According to Roberts, when Bo was merely Dick's girlfriend, Roberts and Bo conspired to grab a portion of the mogul's $100 million-plus fortune and run away together. He claims that once Dick married Bo, she couldn't risk keeping him around.
As suggested proof of his claims, Roberts kept lovey-dovey correspondence from Bo, intimate but not sexual photographs, a pair of rings they bought from a Beverly Hills jeweler and a copy of wedding vows they'd written for each other. He also told his lawyer that when Dick and Bo weren't having sex, Bo gave him herpes, according to court records. Once he vacated the ranch, he claims Bo wrecked his lucrative, exotic-cactus-sales business by spreading lies about him to other wealthy Orange County coastal families.
I have no idea who is telling the truth. We may never know, because law enforcement interjected itself before the civil matter had run its course. But here's what is clear: The DA's criminal case has glaring, perhaps fatal holes.
I respect Senior Deputy District Attorney Rebecca Olivieri, though I am convinced she made faulty interpretations of the evidence and tainted her case by relying on a biased source as the definitive witness. To get indictments, Olivieri told the grand jury that a key to the case was that Toledano must have known his client fabricated a case against Bo, so the men crafted a blackmail plot.
Among the prosecutor's misguided notions is that because Bo identified Roberts as gay, he must have invented the affair story as a way to extort money. After all, gay men don't have sex with women, right? Grand jurors, none of whom has apparently ever heard of bisexuality, swallowed that premise without a single question.
More important, 38 pages of Toledano's handwritten case notes underscore how he easily could have thought Roberts had a valid case. His client said Bo launched a smear campaign against him to preemptively discredit him about their affair and destroy his business. Roberts bolstered his story by providing the names and telephone numbers for more than a dozen witnesses. Try as Olivieri has to prove the contrary, those are the elements of a textbook civil case.
There's something else troubling. To support her contention that Toledano committed extortion, Olivieri called a lone, so-called expert to the grand jury: Paul Roper—the Marconis' personal lawyer and the man police used to carry a duffel bag containing $360,000 to Roberts in the sting operation.
Roper testified that a fool could see that Roberts had no case and that Toledano's goal was therefore extortion: the exchange of Bo's incriminating letters and pictures and a promise not to go to the media for the money. Here again, however, we encounter likely self-serving spin slamming into pesky facts: Roberts went to the media before he accepted the duffel bag.
Also, there is no direct evidence, other than Roper's word, that Toledano ever threatened that a failure to pay meant he would go to the media with salacious dirt or accuse Bo of committing perjury about the sex. Without a threat, there is no extortion attempt.
To further explain the flimsiness of the case, Roper—with Olivieri's prodding—cast Toledano's tough negotiating with the Marconis as the work of a criminal. Roper testified that it's unheard of and suspicious for a lawyer to try to negotiate a settlement for a client prior to going to court.
Do what the grand jury shamefully didn't: Consider the absurdity of Roper's statement. Then think about the fact that the prosecution's case relies on the uncorroborated word of a lone, biased witness who is on the Marconis' payroll. Then ask yourself if this sordid mess should have ended up in a criminal courtroom.
* This article was modified on June 23, 2011.
This column appeared in print as "This Sting Stinks: The more you look at the criminal case against Michael Roberts and Jim Toledano, the more it looks like a matter for civil court."
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