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Attorney convicted of stealing nearly $2 million in MTA money

Crime, Law and JusticePublic TransportationCrimeTheftLA MetroJustice System

A former attorney who once handled some of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's toughest legal cases was convicted Tuesday of stealing nearly $2 million from the transit agency by submitting phony invoices and pocketing settlement money.

James Vincent Reiss, who also was convicted of stealing more than $1 million from other clients, pleaded no contest to two felony counts of grand theft.

He is expected to be sentenced to a decade in prison.

Reiss defended Metro in multimillion-dollar injury lawsuits involving rail and bus passengers until officials realized he was defrauding the agency, said Jane Robison, an L.A. County district attorney's spokeswoman.

Reiss, 52, made the plea as part of a deal in which prosecutors agreed to drop nine other felony counts of theft, forgery and fraud. He is set to be sentenced March 26, and the court is expected to require that he pay more $3 million in restitution.

Reiss created fraudulent documents that led Metro to write checks that he ultimately kept for himself instead of paying plaintiffs who sued the agency.

Karen Gorman, acting inspector general for Metro, said a State Bar of California investigation into problems with Reiss' other clients in 2012 tipped off the agency to the potential for trouble, and officials immediately began auditing his cases.

"We aggressively began to investigate … and working with the district attorney's office we were able to bring Mr. Reiss to justice for his crimes."

According to a Metro lawsuit filed against Reiss' law firm in January for suspected malpractice, forgery and negligence, Reiss cost the agency as much as $2.5 million.

In 2011, Reiss allegedly told the MTA that it had negotiated a $2.5-million jury award down to $1.765 million. But when the Metro board authorized the settlement and ordered that two checks totaling $1.765 million be written, Reiss kept the money, according to the suit.

Reiss then filed an appeal, delaying the case. Metro eventually resolved the case by paying $2.5 million.

The suit alleges Reiss also submitted "numerous falsified invoices totaling at least $754,000," for costs and kept the money.

Jeffrey Pop, an attorney for a plaintiff involved in the case, said Reiss was a skilled litigator, but officials failed to check on the settlement papers.

Prosecutors said that in addition to the MTA, Reiss also took advantage of other clients. In one case, he settled a suit without the client's knowledge, forged signatures on paperwork and pocketed the money, prosecutors said. In another case involving a trust, he opened a bank account, deposited a client's money and wrote checks to himself, prosecutors said.

Reiss was disbarred last year.

richard.winton@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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