Vol. 15, No. 45 -- December 6, 1999
Published Date November 12, 1999, in Washington, D.C. www.insightmag.com
New Scandals in L.A. Court
By Kelly Patricia O'Meara
Insight has more details on an alleged slush fund for the L.A. Superior Court Judges Association and the possible extortion of civil litigants by some officers of the court.
As the old Neil Diamond song has it, "L.A.'s fine, the sun shines most the time and the feeling is laid back." Sunny L.A. is so laid back that alleged corruption within the Superior Court of Los Angeles goes unchecked and nary a thought is given to investigate possible connections of ongoing criminal indictments to schemes and players already exposed (see "Is Justice for Sale in L.A.?" May 3).
. . . . But Marvin Bryer of La Crescenta, Calif., is anything but laid back. A retired computer analyst, Bryer spent years collecting court and bank documents concerning suspicious financial relationships between attorneys, court professionals and judges of the Superior Court. After Insight exposed the secret "coffee-and-flowers" bank account of the Los Angeles Superior Court Judges Association, or LASCJA, Bryer filed a lawsuit against the Family Court Services Special Fund, one of the names used by the LASCJA.
. . . . Bryer contends in his lawsuit that, among other things, the LASCJA was using a "bogus" name to route money to its own bank account gained from minimum continuing legal education, or MCLE, classes and other lawyer-supported ventures associated with the Superior Court. Because the LASCJA illegally was using the County of Los Angeles employer identification number, or EIN, it still is unclear whether the money deposited into the judges' account belonged to the taxpayers of Los Angeles or to the judges -- a question Bryer hopes to have answered by his lawsuit.
. . . . Bryer's lawsuit also names Alf Schonbach, manager of the Finance, Accounting and Internal Audits Section of the Superior Court, in an attempt to determine why Schonbach's statements to Insight that the funds collected from lawyers for the MCLE classes and deposited into the LASCJA account contradict his previous declarations that they came from "donations."
. . . . "I want the truth about the accounts," says Bryer, "and the money illegally collected by the judges' association returned to the taxpayers of the County of Los Angeles."
. . . . Bryer thinks he sees an intricate financial connection in ongoing criminal cases he believes may be related to his investigation into the LASCJA and the county personnel who handled the judges' bank accounts.
. . . . For instance, Bryer has included in his lawsuit Gregory Pentoney, an auditor in the Los Angeles Superior Court finance office. A subordinate to Schonbach, Pentoney was arrested in August 1998 on multiple counts, including grand theft, receiving and offering a bribe and preparing false documentary evidence. Pentoney, along with Encino attorney Robert Fenton, is accused of participating in stealing more than $1.4 million from the Los Angeles County by recovering money that the county owed to various municipalities and kept it in condemnation trust accounts.
. . . . Condemnation funds are monies deposited into trust accounts that are equal to what is offered by the municipality for property condemned under eminent domain. Pentoney is accused of providing a list of condemnation cases to Fenton, who then submitted requests for disbursements of more than $5 million from the trust accounts on behalf of various municipalities. Fenton allegedly collected $1.4 million in finder's fees from the municipalities and kicked back $463,000 to Pentoney.
. . . . At the time Pentoney allegedly was working with Fenton to convert money from the condemnation funds, he also was sparring with Bryer over the LASCJA's bank account. In response to a 1996 lawsuit filed by Bryer, Pentoney claimed in a deposition that while in the finance office he had no knowledge of the Family Court Services Special Fund, which now is known to be one of the names used by the LASCJA for its accounts. Perhaps, but Pentoney's legal representation was provided not by his employer, the County of Los Angeles, but by Robert Traver of Collins, Collins, Muir & Traver in Pasadena -- the law firm that represents the judges. Bryer suspects a cover-up.
. . . . Today, Pentoney is being sued in a civil action in the Van Nuys Superior Court and criminally charged in Los Angeles Superior Court for his alleged participation in the condemnation trust-fund scheme. Also, as a defendant in the civil lawsuit filed by Bryer concerning checks processed by the finance office for the Family Court Services Special Fund, Pentoney is being represented by Michael Bergfeld -- another attorney with Collins, Collins Muir & Traver.
. . . . Bergfeld says in court documents that he was hired by the County of Los Angeles to represent Pentoney. "This is weird," says Bryer, "because this guy is being both represented and prosecuted by Los Angeles County. How can this be?" Pentoney's supervisor tells Insight he, too, is receiving similar assistance from the county through Collins, Collins, Muir & Traver. Schonbach also is a defendant in Bryer's lawsuit and is a witness in Pentoney's criminal case.
. . . . Although some see representation of Pentoney and Schonbach by the judges' law firm as a conflict of interest, Superior Court Presiding Judge Victor Chavez doesn't have a problem with it. "If he was working for the judges' association at the time I don't see a problem. I don't see an ethical issue," says Chavez. In fact, Schonbach was working for the judges' association -- but he was being paid by the County of Los Angeles.
. . . . And when it comes to understanding the status of the Family Court Services Special Fund, even Collins, Collins, Muir & Traver seems to be confused. In a Sept. 14 letter to Bryer, John Collins, a senior name partner at the law firm, says "there is no Family Court Services Special Fund." This may be news to the Bank of America, which accepted checks for deposit from the alleged nonentity into the LASCJA account. Repeated telephone calls to John Collins to clarify the status of the front names allegedly used by the judges to collect money from the attorneys whose cases they heard were not returned.
. . . . John Collins is not only the attorney for the LASCJA, he also is vice president of the California State Bar Association and one of the 21 members of the California Judicial Council -- a body of judges and attorneys created to bring justice to the courts. It is the Judicial Council that decides which judge will hear a case for disqualification. Because Bryer's lawsuit involves county employees, all of the judges of the superior and municipal courts in Los Angeles County have disqualified themselves and his case now is pending in the Municipal Court of Glendale.
. . . . The interconnectedness of Bryer's and Pentoney's cases came to light during a raid by the Los Angeles district attorney on the finance office of the Los Angeles Superior Court, supposedly to obtain evidence related to the Pentoney case. Not only were numerous boxes of documents seized in Schonbach's finance office and taken into custody, but a secret file that the finance office kept on Bryer was taken as well. In fact, the secret Bryer file is the first seizure listed by the district attorney's office.
. . . . Bryer says he believes the records that were removed -- and now are unavailable pending the outcome of Pentoney's criminal case -- will finally nail down his allegations about the Superior Court judges' bank account. "I believe," he says, "that these records could provide the information that will unravel this case."
. . . . Bryer notes that some changes have been made in response to the evidence he uncovered about the judges' alleged $110,000 slush fund, which now has disappeared according to a recent IRS filing.
. . . . For instance, Judge Chavez tells Insight the LASCJA has gone legitimate. "Now we have our own accountant and bookkeeper who keep track of the bank account. I wouldn't be involved in this if it weren't on the up and up. I'm the person who signs the checks and oversees what monies are spent in the account." Chavez agrees that having county employees handling the bank account was "a problem," but reiterates that he has changed things.
. . . . Clearly in control of the "coffee-and-flowers" fund, Chavez was unaware of any effort to pay back taxes that may be due on the $110,000 which was deposited in the LASCJA bank account when it illegally was using the County of Los Angeles EIN. While it appears that Chavez is getting the alleged slush account in order, Insight has obtained documents about another practice in the County of Los Angeles court system that some regard as extortion.
. . . . According to the documents provided to Insight, plaintiffs and defendants apparently are being required to pay for the lunches of jurors and bailiffs on days they are in deliberations. In one instance a plaintiff, who asked not to be identified for fear of retribution, was advised by counsel that plaintiff "had to pay for lunch for the jury." This case was a civil lawsuit and the jury was not sequestered. According to the plaintiff, "I felt like I was being extorted, but I was unaware of court rules and the law so I complied with the attorney's request."
. . . . The plaintiff handed a bailiff a credit card, whereupon he and another bailiff took 12 jurors and two alternates (16 people total) to lunch at the El Sarape Restaurant in Glendale. Lunch for day one of deliberations cost the plaintiff more than $150, including a $22 tip.
. . . . On day two, the plaintiff thought they got a break: 12 jurors and only one alternate joined the two bailiffs for lunch at the China Inn Restaurant in Glendale. The bill still came in just under $150, with what appears to be the standard $22 tip. In both instances -- and Insight has the credit slips -- the bailiff signed the plaintiff's name. "I don't know, says the plaintiff, "if the judge said something to my attorney or what. I guess I was just naïve."
. . . . Not according to Judge Charles Stoll of the Superior Court of Glendale. "Having lunch paid for by the plaintiffs or defendants happens in most jury cases in Glendale," says Stoll. "It's maintenance of the jury," Stoll continues. "They don't have to pay by credit card; the bailiff will accept a check. It's been going on for years."
. . . . Perhaps it has, but is it based in law? According to the judge who assures Insight he has cleaned up the "coffee-and-flowers" fund, there's no way. "It would be wrong," says Chavez, "for any attorney to tell a client that they had to pay for lunch. I'm not aware of it happening. . . . There is nothing in the law that says someone has to pay for lunch for a jury -- absolutely nothing." Chavez adds, however, that "sometimes people do want to pay for the jury's lunch, but if they do the jury never knows who paid for it." Just benevolence, you see.
. . . . So while the court in Glendale appears to be keeping the jurors and bailiffs fed in a bizarre act of enforced charity, Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti has run into trouble with the $13 million he has been withholding from child-support payments under exotic circumstances. Insight's May report on this resulted in a lawsuit filed by Richard Fine in the name of John Silva of Sylmar, Calif., an aggrieved parent who has paid child support since 1984 that records indicate was never forwarded by Garcetti to Silva's children. Fine has just won the right of discovery against the district attorney on his way to forcing disbursement of the huge fund. Although Garcetti tried to get the class-action lawsuit dismissed because, as Fine recalls, "he said he was doing the best he could and therefore we didn't have a right to sue him," the judge ruled in favor of Fine and the case continues to move forward.
. . . . "We've learned from discovery that they have 100,000 files that date as far back as 1984 involving more than $13 million held by Garcetti," says Fine. "We've got to request that the files be matched up -- the payer and payee -- and then require Garcetti to distribute the money. This is one of the greatest human tragedies I've ever handled. People are knocking on his door asking for money owed to them and he's basically saying forget it. People have lost their homes and gone hungry and he couldn't care less. This is a prime example of bureaucratic laziness. If we changed the structure and paid the employees of his department based on the number of cases that got paid, I guarantee that all $13 million would get paid out in 30 days."
. . . . The California Legislature apparently concurs with these sentiments and recently passed a law, to become effective in 2001, removing the collection of child-support monies from Garcetti and all district attorneys throughout the state. Despite these victories the district attorney still is garnisheeing Silva's paycheck for alleged child-support arrears for which Silva has receipts from Garcetti's office. Garcetti's enforcement personnel refuse to acknowledge Silva's proof that he paid the support and continue to seize money from his payroll check against an alleged $60,000 arrearage.
. . . . Silva's monthly payments vary depending on his biweekly income. His take-home pay is approximately $1,200, of which Garcetti often will leave him with $200 to care for a family of four. In fact, two weeks after Silva's story ran in Insight , Garcetti took all but one dollar of his $1,200 paycheck. Silva didn't bother to cash the check and soon will file a lawsuit against Garcetti.
. . . . Fine understands what's happening to the man responsible for the class-action lawsuit that is seeking to stop these practices. "This appears," he says, "to be retribution. They continue to mess with John because they're trying to get back at him for filing the suit."
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