At first, Beverly Hills lawyer Joel Bruce Johnson tried to laugh it off when an Inglewood attorney and taxi driver named John Bruce Johnson drew headlines for his role in a scheme to defraud the Rapid Transit District of thousands of dollars.
But when his legal business started dropping off, he stopped being amused.
So Tuesday, while John Bruce Johnson, 40, was being arraigned in Superior Court on charges of trying to escape from a courtroom during his sentencing last month, Joel Bruce Johnson, 45, was at a press conference trying to escape from a case of mistaken identity.
Joel Bruce Johnson explained that he is not John Bruce Johnson or, for that matter, J. Bruce Johnson, as John Bruce Johnson also called himself.
When news stories about the RTD insurance fraud broke last May, Joel Bruce Johnson said he began losing clients in his Beverly Hills business law practice. Since then, he said, he has turned 135 of 160 client cases over to other lawyers. New cases also have been referred to other attorneys.
He has closed his Wilshire Boulevard office, Joel Bruce Johnson said, and now works at home on cases not involving litigation, adding that he does not want to risk involvement in legal proceedings for the next year because of "possible taint" in the minds of those who might be on juries, or who are officers of the court or others, such as insurance companies and attorneys.
The similar name was not the only coincidence for Johnson and Johnson, Joel Bruce Johnson said. In January, John Bruce Johnson was sentenced to three years in prison after pleading no contest to two counts of conspiracy and 14 counts of grand theft for involvement in an insurance accident fraud scam that bilked RTD.
The scheme involved insurance adjusters who worked on RTD claims and sold bus accident information to attorneys who filed phony claims on behalf of clients, who in some cases did not exist, according to the district attorney's office.
Joel Bruce Johnson said that much of his business law practice involved work as a consumer fraud consultant to major national insurance companies, setting up procedures to protect them from just such fraudulent claims. He said he has written and lectured extensively on the subject.
Joel Bruce Johnson believes that John Bruce Johnson may have purposely set out to blur their identities for credibility purposes. "I've never arbitrated an RTD case, but many of the insurance adjusters who do handle them may have had familiarity with my name," he said.
However, Paul Fitzgerald, the former attorney for John Bruce Johnson, said his client has denied knowing of Joel Bruce Johnson. "He was under the impression that there were lots of attorneys named Johnson," Fitzgerald said.
He added that John Bruce Johnson had not been able to support himself financially as an attorney after passing the Bar examination 11 years ago, and so he also worked as a taxi driver. He had only three clients at the time of his arrest.
"Frankly, I can't imagine that many people read the (stories)," Fitzgerald said. "It was not the talk of the town. If it had happened to me, I would have typed a letter to all my clients that I'm not the Johnson and would appreciate their confidence in me."
Joel Bruce Johnson said he did write about 650 letters, but no longer has addresses for many of the 2,700 clients that he has represented in the last 13 years.
And he added that even clients who now know the difference between the two Johnsons have withdrawn their cases. They do not want to be represented by an attorney others might believe to have been involved in the RTD scam, Joel Bruce Johnson said.
In the News Again
He decided to go public with his story of mistaken identity, he said, when John Bruce Johnson again got news coverage when he allegedly tried to bolt from the courtroom while being sentenced on Jan. 20. On Tuesday, John Bruce Johnson pleaded not guilty to the charge of felony flight.
Joel Bruce Johnson said that he does not want to change his name or move out of the area. "That would be like running away," he said.
He likened his predicament to that of a cleaning establishment using the name Jack the Ripper Cleaners. "They wouldn't get much business, would they?"