1,000 O.C. court cases res­ur­rected

Of­fi­cials say a clerk il­le­gally re­solved many by cre­at­ing fake plea deals with re­duced penal­ties.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Anh Do and Richard Win­ton

Af­ter get­ting ar­rested on sus­pi­cion of a sec­ond DUI last fall, David Her­nan­dez heard from a friend of a friend that there was some­one in the Or­ange County court sys­tem who could “fix things.”

Last Novem­ber, Her­nan­dez said, he paid $8,000 through a mid­dle­man to the fixer. For a while, it seemed as though the case had gone away.

But about three weeks ago, Her­nan­dez re­ceived a let­ter or­der­ing him to ap­pear in a Westminster court Fri­day. There, of­fi­cials told him they had dis­cov­ered ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties in his case.

Of­fi­cials now say that about 1,000 DUI and mis­de­meanor traf­fic cases were “fixed” by a clerk, who has not been iden­ti­fied. The clerk ap­par­ently cre­ated fake plea deals with heav­ily re­duced penal­ties.

The FBI be­gan ex­am­in­ing cases last week, and Or­ange County pros­e­cu­tors have their own on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Jeffrey Wertheimer, le­gal coun­sel for the Or­ange County Su­pe­rior Court sys­tem, said the cases date back to 2010 and in­clude courts across the county.

He said all of the cases ap­pear to be tied to the clerk, who had left his job in re­cent months. Wertheimer would not say whether the em­ployee was fired.

“That is big-time cor­rup­tion,” said Stan­ley Gold­man, a Loy­ola law pro­fes­sor and vet­eran crim­i­nal lawyer. “While the in­di­vid­u­als’ cases might be rel­a­tively low-level of­fenses, with so many to­gether that adds up to a very se­ri­ous crim­i­nal en­ter­prise.”

Law en­force­ment sources fa­mil­iar with the crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion told The Times that the scheme ap­peared to tar­get pre­dom­i­nantly Latino de­fen­dants. Many at­tor­neys have come

‘While the in­di­vid­u­als’ cases might be rel­a­tively low-level of­fenses, with so many to­gether that adds up to a very se­ri­ous crim­i­nal en­ter­prise.’

— Stan­ley Gold­man,

Loy­ola law pro­fes­sor

for­ward, say­ing that de­spite records list­ing them as de­fen­dants’ lawyers, they never rep­re­sented the clients, Wertheimer said.

The courts will seek to cor­rect all of the cases, he added. That process be­gan last week and con­tin­ued in a court­house in Westminster on Fri­day, where de­fen­dants were sum­moned with their at­tor­neys to ap­pear be­fore a judge.

About 30 peo­ple waited in Judge Thomas Bor­ris’ court­room for their names to be called. The al­le­ga­tions against them — mostly mis­de­meanors — in­cluded un­safe lane changes or DUIs, not hav­ing car in­sur­ance or op­er­at­ing ve­hi­cles with tinted win­dows. The judge grilled ev­ery de­fen­dant.

“Do you re­mem­ber be­ing in jail?” he asked some. Most replied that they had never done any time for their of­fense. If that was the case, Bor­ris told them their fines and fees would be re­in­stated and he asked the de­fen­dants whether they would like to talk to a pros­e­cu­tor about a plea bar­gain.

One de­fen­dant, Os­valdo Gar­cia, who had amassed about 20 tick­ets, asked Bor­ris for an es­ti­mated lump sum pay­ment he could make. He said he would sell some of his cars to pay the fines.

The fixed cases were un­cov­ered when another court em­ployee dis­cov­ered an in­com­plete DUI case, lead­ing to a re­view of all cases en­tered by the clerk who had han­dled the case, the court at­tor­ney said.

An Or­ange County public cor­rup­tion task force is in­ves­ti­gat­ing the illegal case res­o­lu­tions.

Gold­man said that with so many cases in­volved, the scheme had likely net­ted huge sums of money and would prob­a­bly take months to un­ravel. Gold­man said the com­put­er­i­za­tion of the court sys­tem might make it eas­ier for a per­son on the in­side to sub­vert the le­gal process and make cases dis­ap­pear or fraud­u­lently re­solve them.

“I am sur­prised in the DUIs that po­lice of­fi­cers never got sus­pi­cious when they didn’t get called” to court, Gold­man said.

Vir­ginia Landry, an Or­ange County DUI at­tor­ney, said at­tor­neys in her firm and oth­ers were called to the court on be­half of clients they had never heard of be­fore. They sus­pect some­one used the names of ac­tual at­tor­neys to make the res­o­lu­tions look le­git­i­mate.

Lolita Kirk, a Santa Ana crim­i­nal de­fense at­tor­ney, re­ceived a no­tice to ap­pear be­fore Bor­ris con­cern­ing three de­fen­dants. Court records in­di­cated they had been her clients, but she told the judge she had never rep­re­sented them.

Her­nan­dez was or­dered to re­turn to the court­room for sen­tenc­ing. With re­gret, he said he re­mem­bered that the go-be­tween who gave the money to the court fixer told him that the per­son “can help you right away. It will be taken care of.”

His sec­ond DUI hap­pened late last year. He had re­turned home af­ter drink­ing at a bar, he said, but then he got a call from a woman he knew who needed a ride.

“That was a mis­take, jump­ing back into the car af­ter the few drinks,” Her­nan­dez said. “It’s a mis­take and a les­son I’m learn­ing from.”

Now Her­nan­dez, who lives with a sis­ter and has to take public trans­porta­tion to work, has to scrape to­gether money to hire a lawyer. He des­per­ately wants to avoid go­ing to jail and would rather pay fines and do com­mu­nity ser­vice, he said.

As he walked down the court hall­way, an FBI agent fol­lowed him and handed him a sub­poena. He will have to go to fed­eral court July 8 as a wit­ness against the sus­pected fixer, Her­nan­dez said.

Her­nan­dez now re­grets not lis­ten­ing to his boss at a golf equip­ment com­pany — one of his two jobs — about whether he should go with the fixer.

“I talked to my boss and asked him, ‘Should I do it?’ ” Her­nan­dez re­called. “He said to do it the right way. But I was stub­born and did it this way. If I wasn’t so stub­born, I could have avoided this easily.”

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