A judge on Friday ordered two brothers accused of posing as lawyers to stand trial for allegedly taking nearly $70,000 from more than 100 people who hired them in the mistaken belief they were attorneys.
John Vescera, 28, who was arrested Feb. 6 and spent 35 days in jail for contempt of court for impersonating an attorney, and his brother, Frank, 34, were ordered held for trial on 96 felony charges after a two-week preliminary hearing before Judge William P. Lamb, of Mendocino County.
Lamb, granting a defense request, also ordered the Orange County district attorney's office not to prosecute the case, but to turn it over to the state attorney general's office, to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest.
The Vescera brothers are to be arraigned in Superior Court on April 4, on charges of conspiring to practice law without a license, conspiring to commit grand theft, and 94 counts of grand theft. They also face 26 misdemeanor charges (less than $400 per count) of taking money from would-be clients.
In all, 111 witnesses, most of them alleged victims of the Vescera brothers, testified during the preliminary hearing that they paid the brothers a total of $69,172 in fees, Lamb said.
Lamb was brought in to hear the case rather than have it conducted by any of the Santa Ana MunicipalCourt judges before whom the brothers are accused of arguing cases.
In barring the Orange County district attorney's office from prosecuting them in Superior Court, Lamb said that there was no evidence that the Central Municipal Court judges in Santa Ana would retaliate against district attorneys appearing in their courts if the judges were unhappy with the way the prosecutors handled the trial or any subsequent sentencing of the brothers.
He said, however, that "the appearance of the possibility of conflict (of interest)" would be so great that the attorney general should handle the case.
Prosecutors Vow Appeal
Deputy Dist. Atty. Jan Nolan and Deputy Atty. Gen. Janelle Davis both disagreed with Lamb's decision, and said they would appeal.
Lamb said the charges against the Vesceras allege "an inherent insult to the administration of justice" that is serious enough to cause a public perception that Municipal Court judges might influence any deputy district attorney appearing before them to pressure a colleague prosecuting the case to make sure a conviction and stiff sentence were obtained.
He said that although "local district attorneys are loath to admit" the potential for such pressure, and there was no evidence of it, he was worried about even an appearance of bias.
John Vescera was arrested and jailed for civil contempt of court at the order of Jacquelyn Thomason, presiding judge of the Central Municipal Court. Thomason said she thought John Vescera was illegally soliciting clients, but when she checked with the State Bar Assn., she learned that the John Vescera named as an attorney in their files would have to be in his 90s. When she checked with the University of Southern California, where Vescera claimed to have earned a law degree, she found they had no record of Vescera having graduated, the judge said.
Investigators have said the Vesceras set themselves up as lawyers last summer. John allegedly made most of the court appearances, defending people charged with drunken driving, most of whom pleaded guilty.
Court records indicate the Vesceras never actually went to trial, investigators said. Instead, they persuaded their clients, many of whom spoke only Spanish, to plead guilty.
In arguing for lower bail at a court hearing last month, Frank Vescera filed a statement saying he thought John was indeed a lawyer and "even showed me his bar card."
Investigators said John obtained the card by saying he had changed his name, from John Helmick to John Vescera, and asking for a card in his new name. The Bar, apparently unaware that the Helmick who held a Bar card first issued in 1922 had died, issued the card in October, 1983, in the name of John Vescera.
Past Forgery Alleged
Nolan said in court that John Vescera twice forged college transcripts, once while trying to get into medical school, and that three years ago, Frank Vescera was named in a lawsuit alleging fraud and deceit in his purchase of a house.