Alter Nuisance Finding in Pot Case or Face Ouster, Judge Tells Councilman

Times Staff Writer

A Superior Court judge has told lawyers in the election fraud case against City Councilman Floyd A. James that he will effectively kick the politician out of office unless the city withdraws an unrelated public nuisance judgment against a prosecution witness.

The judge, Aurelio Munoz, declined to comment this week. The lawyers also either declined to comment or could not be reached. Nor would James say anything.

But City Manager James C. Goins confirmed the judge's statement, saying that it had been recounted to him by the councilman's defense lawyer, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.

Munoz is scheduled to sentence James on March 30 for illegally mailing a notice to voters during the councilman's bitter 1985 reelection campaign. James pleaded no contest to the charge in January and agreed to let Munoz decide if the violation deserves to be a misdemeanor or a more serious felony. Under California law, a felony conviction would automatically bar him from holding elective office.

When James pleaded no contest to the charge, he and Cochran had expressed confidence that Munoz would consider it only a misdemeanor. They noted that prosecutors had allowed co-defendant Roderick Wright, the councilman's political consultant, to plead no contest to the same reduced charge. Munoz eventually sentenced Wright to probation.

But last Friday, at what was supposed to be James' sentencing hearing in downtown Los Angeles, the judge granted a 30-day delay after conducting a confidential bench conference with Cochran and Deputy Dist. Atty. Candace J. Beason.

Intends to Levy Felony Sentence

According to Goins, the judge told the lawyers that he intended to sentence James under the felony election fraud statue--effectively stripping him of his City Council seat--unless the city somehow reversed its nuisance action against Francesca Houpe, who had previously testified against the councilman.

Cochran was out of town this week and could not be reached by a reporter, and prosecutor Beason declined to discuss the bench conference.

"My understanding," said Goins, "is that the judge communicated that he felt the city had intimidated the witness Houpe and that he stated that the city needs to reverse that action . . . or that he'd take a different position regarding Floyd's case" and elevate the charge "from a misdemeanor to a felony."

Spokesmen for both the California Judges Assn. and the state Commission on Judicial Performance declined to say whether Munoz's action was in any way unusual. The 47-year-old jurist was a Los Angeles municipal judge before being promoted to the Superior Court bench in 1980 by former Gov. Edmund Brown Jr.

Goins and Assistant City Manager Paul Richards, who is also mayor of neighboring Lynwood, had been waiting outside Munoz's downtown Los Angeles courtroom with several James supporters when Friday's hearing concluded. Goins said Cochran emerged and relayed what the judge had stated in private. Goins then used his city car telephone to convey the news to Councilman Robert L. Adams.

"I don't see how it's possible for a judge to make a ruling of that nature," Adams said in confirming his conversation with Goins. "I was shocked. . . . It just ran across my mind, 'How can a judge dictate to a municipality?' "

Alleged Attempt to Buy Votes

Houpe, a 34-year-old mother of two, had appeared before a county grand jury in December, 1985, and accused James of attempting to buy votes by offering record albums to city electors in return for their pledge of support. Houpe had said James made one such offer to her. A few days later, the grand jury indicted the councilman and his consultant on that charge and two others stemming from allegedly illegal campaign mailings. (Two of the charges were dropped when James agreed not to contest one of the campaign mailing counts.) At a preliminary hearing last July, Houpe testified a second time as the men were bound over for trial.

Then, on Aug. 14, 1986. Compton police reported finding three marijuana plants growing in Houpe's backyard. She was arrested, although she denied knowing anything about the plants and had no prior criminal record. The district attorney's office subsequently twice refused to file charges, stating that there was insufficient evidence to prove that she had actually been cultivating the illegal weeds.

Nevertheless, City Atty. Wesley Fenderson Jr. recommended that the council declare Houpe's house a public nuisance under a year-old ordinance designed to crack down on dope dealers by threatening to confiscate any buildings used to produce or sell illegal drugs.

Abstained From Hearings

James abstained from participating in the council hearings that followed after it was revealed that he had initially alerted police to the marijuana plants--he said he had merely passed on a tip from a confidential informant--and had contacted Fenderson to discuss whether a nuisance action could be brought in such a case.

In January, the council declared Houpe's home a nuisance, warning that if it was cited again the city would go to court to have it condemned. Mayor Walter R. Tucker was joined by council members Maxcy D. Filer and Jane D. Robbins in voting to declare the nuisance. But Adams joined James in abstaining.

Adams said this week that he believes it would be impossible for James to persuade his colleagues to overturn the decision, particularly since Houpe has now filed a $5-million damage claim against the city, charging that her Constitutional rights were violated by the nuisance proceedings. The council denied the claim last month, opening the way for Houpe to file a lawsuit.

Adams said that if the council reversed itself now, it might bolster Houpe's contention that she was wrongly accused of growing the marijuana. "I would think she could win if the council would do anything" to alter the initial finding, Adams said.

Councilman Filer declined to comment and Mayor Tucker could not be reached.

But Councilwoman Robbins said she is not be inclined to change her vote.

'That's His Problem'

"Unless there are some more extenuating circumstances that somebody hasn't told me about, my vote would stand," Robbins said. "If he (James) is in this predicament, that's his problem. I cannot go against what I believe to be legal and proper."

Robbins said she would have liked Goins to have informed her of the hearing result, as he did Adams. (Since former City Manager Laverta Montgomery was fired in October, Goins has served as a temporary replacement. But on Tuesday, the council gave him the post, as well as a salary of $79,000 a year, on a 4-1 vote in which Filer dissented because no other candidates were formally considered.)

Robbins was aware, however, that James had won a sentencing delay. "I thought maybe the judge gave him (the delay) because of the National League of Cities meeting in Washington D.C.," which James attended earlier this week.

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