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Former Orange County court clerk is sentenced to prison for taking bribes in ticket-fixing scandal

A former Orange County court clerk was sentenced Friday to more than 11 years in prison for running a bribery scam in which he forged computer records to close out more than 1,000 criminal and traffic cases in ways that were favorable to the accused.

Jose Lopez Jr., 36, learned his punishment during a morning hearing in a Santa Ana courtroom. The sentence followed the Anaheim resident’s guilty plea in March to one count of conspiring to violate federal racketeering laws.

In handing down the 135-month sentence, U.S. District Judge Josephine L. Staton said the scheme Lopez orchestrated “was not an aberration from his character — this was his character,” according to a statement released by the U.S. attorney’s office.

The prison term for Lopez caps a sweeping prosecution launched by federal authorities after the brazen operation was disclosed by Orange County officials in 2015. Ten others who acted as middlemen, collecting and delivering payoffs to Lopez, have pleaded guilty and been sentenced or are awaiting sentencing. A jury convicted a 12th man.

In all, prosecutors said Lopez collected about $420,000 in bribes over five years to secretly fix criminal cases and traffic cases. The bribes ran as high as $8,000, the statement said.

According to court documents, Lopez is believed to have improperly tampered with 1,034 cases, including 69 misdemeanor driving under the influence cases, 160 other misdemeanor cases and 805 traffic-related infraction cases.

Lopez, prosecutors concluded, took advantage of his unchecked access to the court computer system to fabricate electronic trails of justice. With a few easy keystrokes, he made it seem that people had served jail time, had charges dismissed or paid fines when they had not, according to court records.

In one example, a man caught driving on a suspended license handed $1,000 to a middleman and, later the same day, Lopez accessed the man’s case in the court’s computer system. Lopez manufactured a court hearing to make it appear as though a judge had decided the man would be allowed to perform community service instead of paying a fine, court records show.

Lopez traveled abroad, went to Las Vegas, and opened a restaurant in Garden Grove with the money he collected in bribes, according to the U.S. attorney’s statement.

After discovering the scheme, Orange County Superior Court officials examined every case Lopez had handled and local prosecutors held new hearings to properly adjudicate those in which he had forged the outcome, according to a statement court officials filed with the judge. The cleanup effort cost the court system about $170,000, the records show.

Brian Gurwitz, Lopez’s attorney, said he was “disappointed by the sentence but I respect it.”

Staton went more than two years over what even prosecutors had recommended for a sentence — a move Gurwitz said is not uncommon in public corruption cases. Judges, he said, “take particular offense at the breach of trust.”

joel.rubin@latimes.com

Follow @joelrubin on Twitter

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