Former Irvine City Councilman C. David Baker pleaded guilty Thursday to forging the signature of an Orange County Superior Court judge on a $48,000 check to cover last-minute expenses in his failed campaign for Congress.
Baker, a 6-foot, 9-inch, 325-pound former basketball star at UC Irvine, stood motionless, hands firmly clasped behind his back, as he entered his plea in Superior Court in Santa Ana to a single count of felony forgery. His sentencing was scheduled for Nov. 14.
Although Baker, 35, could be sentenced to up to three years in prison, Superior Court Judge Myron S. Brown's comments Thursday indicated that it is unlikely that Baker will spend any time in jail.
In a conference with Brown before the formal hearing, Baker's attorney, Paul S. Meyer, said he was hoping that his client would get a suspended jail sentence and probation involving community service. Deputy Dist. Atty. Christopher J. Evans said he had no objection and would leave the decision to the judge.
Urges Volunteer Service
Later in the hearing, Brown told Baker that he should find a suitable community organization that would benefit from his services as a volunteer.
Technically, Baker has not been convicted because Brown did not issue a "pronouncement of judgment," Evans said. That will most likely come at the November hearing, when the judge has the option of reducing Baker's charge to a misdemeanor, Evans explained.
The final disposition of the case is expected to have a bearing on whether Baker will lose his license to practice law. In August, two days before he was charged with forgery, Baker resigned from the law firm of Paul, Hastings Janofsky & Walker.
Anne Charles, a spokeswoman for the State Bar Assn., said Thursday that Baker's guilty plea may result in an "interim suspension" of his license and added that no permanent action will be taken until the criminal case is closed.
Baker was charged with writing a check to himself on the account of the nonprofit Irvine Health Foundation on June 2 during the final days of his unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination in the 40th Congressional District. The foundation's check required two signatures. Baker, as executive director of the foundation, signed his own name and forged the second signature, signing the name of the group's chairman, Superior Court Judge David G. Sills.
Baker put a stop-payment order on the check shortly after it was written and before it was discovered by the foundation, his attorney has said.
Delayed for Report
Baker was charged in mid-August, but his arraignment was delayed to allow time for completion of a probation report.
After Baker pleaded guilty, Brown looked at the former councilman and said: "I am sure that no one is sadder to be before this court than you."
Baker, tanned and wearing a gray suit nodded.
Then, referring the outlines of a sentence that had been discussed earlier and to the probation report, which was not released to the public, Brown said that Baker is a "man of enormous talents, and I would like to put those enormous talents to work."
With the "holiday season commencing," Brown said, Baker should find some organization into which he could put his "considerable time, energy and love."
Outside the courtroom, Baker's attorney said he was "delighted" with the direction Brown's comments had taken. Although he cautioned that a final penalty has not been imposed, he said community service has been Baker's "whole life, something he does very well."
Baker, who served one term on the Irvine council before deciding to run for Congress in January, built his political base through longtime involvement in numerous Irvine civic groups, including the city's annual Harvest Festival and Boys and Girls Clubs.
"I cut my community teeth on setting up chairs and teaching little kids how to play basketball," Baker told reporters in a courthouse hallway. "Community service is something that I love."
Baker expressed regret that he must return to court at least once more. He said he had hoped it would end Thursday, adding: "I was hoping to say that you wouldn't have Dave Baker to kick around anymore."
Describing the whole episode as a "great personal crisis," Baker said he has no immediate plans for himself or his wife and two sons. The couple sold their Irvine home last month and now live in a small Tustin condominium.
In a brief interview before his court appearance, Baker said he has spent his days "working outside and running." Baker did not rule out practicing law again but said it is "much too early to know which direction I am going."
When a reporter remarked that the case seemed to be almost over, he smiled and remarked: "It will never be over."
Baker said he has received more than 500 telephone calls and 300 letters of support.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Evans acknowledged that some "people may believe Dave Baker got a special deal, but he didn't." Evans said Baker has an "incredible record of community service, and no criminal history, not even a ticket."