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Wright Inquiry Spurs Ethics Questions

Times Staff Writer

Assemblywoman Cathie Wright’s reported efforts to keep her daughter on the road despite a string of traffic tickets have raised complex legal questions about the appropriate behavior of lawmakers, judges and, in one instance, a powerful legislator who is also an attorney.

Ventura County Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury is investigating whether Wright’s actions or those of others may have violated any laws or codes of professional conduct. No criminal violations have been alleged; Wright said she did nothing improper.

Investigators are closely scrutinizing contacts that Wright (R-Simi Valley) allegedly initiated with a Municipal Court judge and a Municipal Court commissioner at their homes in 1988 and a phone call that Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) reportedly made to Municipal Judge Herbert Curtis III at Wright’s behest last year.

The driving license of Victoria Catherine Wright, the assemblywoman’s 24-year-old daughter, was revoked March 9. Since 1981, she has had at least six accidents and 27 traffic tickets, 24 of them for speeding.

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There is no dispute about Cathie Wright’s going to bat for her daughter many times, approaching the Simi Valley city manager and police chief, the head of the state Department of Motor Vehicles and judicial officials about Victoria’s traffic problems.

But, the lawmaker maintains, she was merely seeking to ensure that her daughter, who also is a constituent, was informed about various administrative and legal processes and was treated fairly. Bradbury’s inquiry, which is expected to be completed next month, is probing whether Wright exceeded those bounds.

Meanwhile, questions raised in recent weeks include the following:

* Is it a crime for an individual to fix a traffic ticket or attempt to do so?

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No law specifically addresses ticket-fixing, legal authorities say. It is a crime, however, to offer a bribe or to engage in extortion to get a ticket dismissed. There has been no suggestion that Wright did either.

If two or more individuals combine forces to fix a ticket, they can be charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice. Legal experts say this charge is usually brought when a pattern is established by more than one such offense.

Beverly Hills Municipal Judge Charles D. Boags recently was placed on six months probation and fined $4,000 for conspiring to obstruct justice by suspending fines on parking tickets issued to his son and his son’s friends. The prosecution introduced 205 parking tickets on which Boags had recorded guilty pleas and suspended the fines.

No such pattern appears to exist in the Wright inquiry. This does not rule out the possibility that other laws may also apply, albeit less directly, to Wright’s actions.

* Is a legislator acting improperly by contacting a judge about a pending case?

Wright went to see Municipal Court Judge Bruce A. Clark and John Paventi, a recently appointed Municipal Court commissioner, at their homes when Victoria Wright had traffic offenses pending before them, according to sources familiar with Bradbury’s investigation.

Paventi, who reportedly tape-recorded his conversation with Wright without telling her, disqualified himself from the case; Clark did not.

Wright said she went to Paventi, a former Ventura County GOP chairman and longtime friend whom she has supported for a judgeship, strictly for advice.

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“I know all these judges,” she said earlier this month. “I may have sat down with them at a dinner.”

It is not a social relationship but rather the explicit or implicit pressure a legislator can exert on a judge that makes it a problem to communicate on a pending case, legal authorities say. Legislators can play an influential role in supporting or opposing an attorney for a Municipal Court judgeship or a Municipal Court judge for a coveted promotion to the Superior Court.

For instance, friendly lawmakers can recommend someone to the governor, who makes all appointments. The governor’s office may ask the prospective nominee to apply for an opening.

The governor’s appointments office submits a list of the most promising applicants to the California State Bar Commission on Judicial Nominee Evaluation, which reviews and grades each on a scale ranging from exceptionally well-qualified to not qualified.

The governor uses the commission’s evaluation, as well as a wide range of additional information, to make his final decision, according to Terry Flanigan, Gov. George Deukmejian’s appointments secretary. Flanigan said one factor that is “usually very important” is the recommendations of legislators from the prospective judge’s home county.

“We keep in contact with them all the time,” Flanigan said. “The files are filled with recommendations of legislators in various areas. We certainly talk to them: ‘Do you know the candidate? What do you think of them?’ I’m sure every legislator in the building has recommended somebody at some stage or another.”

* Is a judge behaving properly by speaking with a legislator about a pending case?

In general, judges are prohibited from discussing a case with anyone outside of court. Such a communication is known as ex parte-- taking place outside the presence of the other side, for instance, without the prosecutor present.

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The California Code of Judicial Conduct says judges should, “except as authorized by law, neither initiate nor consider ex parte or other communications concerning a pending or impending proceeding.”

Ex parte hearings are most frequently justifiable in domestic matters when, for example, a battered wife seeking a court order to bar an abusive husband from her house fears he will assault her if he learns of her request, said Superior Court Judge Roderic Duncan of Alameda County, a member of the California Judges Assn.'s public information committee.

After an ex parte hearing last spring, Judge Clark, a Republican, allowed Victoria Wright to go to traffic school to dismiss two speeding tickets, according to Ventura County court records. He did not indicate who was present at the out-of-court session or why he felt it was proper to handle the case in this fashion. Clark said he would not discuss his actions until Bradbury’s investigation is completed.

Without commenting directly on Clark’s actions, Duncan, a Municipal Court judge for 11 1/2 years before his elevation two years ago, said an ex parte hearing held in a judge’s home gives at least the appearance of favoritism.

“The appearance of justice is almost as important as the actual doing of justice, and there’s no way if you do something in your home it can be seen as the same as if you did it in the courtroom,” Duncan said.

Brown’s phone call to Curtis, in which the Speaker reportedly said Victoria Wright “was a good person trying to get her life in order and deserved a break in the case,” also constituted an ex parte communication.

Duncan said a judge should not listen to such a communication. If he does, he should make the prosecution aware of it and, if he feels it compromises his ability to be impartial, he should remove himself from the case and assign it to another judge.

Curtis, a Democrat, apparently did not inform the prosecutor’s office about the alleged call. He fined Victoria Wright for two speeding tickets. In addition, he placed her on probation for three years and gave her a 30-day suspended sentence for driving without a license. He also told her she would go to jail on her next conviction.

Curtis recently declined to comment on Brown’s alleged call. But, he added, even if the Speaker did call, “It sure didn’t do much good” for Victoria Wright.

The state Commission on Judicial Performance oversees the conduct of judges. The commission, which has the authority to investigate alleged improprieties and recommend disciplinary action to the California Supreme Court, does not disclose whether it is conducting an investigation until its recommendation is sent to the Supreme Court.

* Why is the Bar Assn. looking into Brown’s alleged involvement?

Brown, unlike Cathie Wright, is an attorney. As such, he is subject to the State Bar of California’s Rules of Professional Conduct.

He was not involved in the Wright matter as an attorney. In fact, when Victoria Wright’s case was pending before Curtis, Brown had recommended Frederick Rosenmund, an Oxnard attorney, to Cathie Wright to represent her daughter.

But in the wake of a report in The Times about Brown’s alleged call to Curtis, the State Bar opened a preliminary inquiry to determine if there were any misconduct by Brown.

The Bar’s rule governing contact with officials states:

“A member of the state bar shall not directly or indirectly in the absence of opposing counsel communicate with or argue to a judge or judicial officer, upon the merits of a contested matter pending before such judge or judicial officer, except in open court.”

Asked whether he had contacted Curtis, Brown at first said, “No, no, no, not at all, not at all, not possible.” Later, he seemed to equivocate, saying he “could very well have spoken” to Curtis “but I have no recollection of calling him for any purpose.”

Besides, Brown added, “Even if I had, it wouldn’t be improper.”


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