The final chapter in one of the most bizarre political cases in Orange County history comes to a close today as the 6-month probation of former Irvine City Councilman C. David Baker, once a shining prospect in the local Republican party, officially ends.
Baker, 36, has performed in excess of 500 hours of community service for forging a $48,000 check during his failed bid for Congress last year. In September, Baker pleaded guilty to one count of felony forgery. But Orange County Superior Court Judge Myron S. Brown later reduced the charge to a misdemeanor, ordering Baker to perform an unspecified amount of community service and placing him on probation.
With the court's receipt of letters confirming that Baker had fulfilled his community service sentence, the probation order signed by the judge formally expires today. Baker was not disbarred as a result of his legal troubles, and he is reportedly considering several opportunities to practice law again in private industry.
Since November, friends and associates say Baker has carried out his sentence with an almost religious zeal. He has served hot meals to the elderly, coached basketball at the Downey high school where he once starred as a student athlete, and worked as an adviser and business strategist for a nonprofit Irvine youth group.
Although Baker is described as happier and more outgoing these days, close friends say privately that it may take him years to overcome the events that last summer cost him his job with a prestigious law firm, a $400,000 lakeside home in Irvine and a promising political future.
"Sure Dave has come a long way back from where he was a few months ago," said one longtime friend and political ally in Irvine. "But nobody will ever know how far gone Dave really was. At one point, he wasn't sure he wanted to go on."
Baker's life began to unravel in the final days of last June's Republican primary in the coveted 40th Congressional District. He was the early favorite in the race to replace six-term incumbent Rep. Robert E. Badham (R-Newport Beach).
Badham, who retired, endorsed Baker, as did a number of other prominent local GOP activists, giving the former UC Irvine basketball star a significant edge in the primary. A primary victory would have been tantamount to winning the seat because the district has one of the highest concentrations of Republicans in the nation.
Despite the support of prominent Republicans and local officials, Baker found himself locked in an unexpectedly tight race as the primary drew to a close. With his campaign reportedly short of cash, Baker forged the signature of an Orange County Superior Court judge on a $48,000 check, which was written on the account of a local, nonprofit foundation that Baker headed at the time. Baker made the check out to himself, signing it with Judge David G. Sills' name, as well as his own.
Baker stopped payment on the check shortly after it was written.
When Sills and a handful of close friends discovered the forged checks just days before the election, Baker admitted himself for hospital care for depression and exhaustion. But his hospitalization was known to only a few, and it was not until after the primary, which he narrowly lost to Newport Beach attorney C. Christopher Cox, that news of the forged checks and Baker's hospital stay surfaced.
Throughout the ordeal, Baker has steadfastly declined to talk about the incident and its impact on his life.
Baker could not be reached for comment this week about the end of his probation, and on Thursday, his attorney, Paul S. Meyer, declined to comment on his client or to discuss Baker's plans.
What is known about Baker, based on court records and interviews with friends, is that he immersed himself in his community service work. He served hot lunches for Meals on Wheels in Irvine; helped coach the varsity basketball team at Warren High School in Downey, his alma mater; and worked for American Kids Sports Assn., the nonprofit arm of an Irvine-based youth sports organization founded by former Olympian Bob Mathias.
Under terms of his sentencing, Baker was allowed to choose his form of community service, but he could not be compensated for the work.
At Kids Sports, Baker served as a legal adviser and business planner for the fledgling group, whose aim is to build self-esteem for children ages 5 to 12 through sports. One of its major events is an international Olympic-style sporting competition for children scheduled for August in Tijuana.
Baker served as a liaison between the group and Mexican officials to help arrange the event, said Chuck Foster, an executive with Mathias' operations. Politically well connected, Baker also helped the group raise money, Foster said, introducing officials of Kids Sports to prominent community leaders.
"We wanted to reach the right kind of people, to get them out and introduce them to Bob Mathias' programs," Foster said. "Dave proved to be a vital link."
Baker was described by Foster as a "hard worker" who often labored through the night. "There were times we'd leave the office late at night, only to return the next morning and find Dave asleep in his chair or on his desk," Foster said.
Foster believes that Baker "plunged into his work" to forget his troubles.
"Anytime that you have gone through something that is difficult, immersing yourself in something you like is helpful," Foster said. "And Dave loves kids."
That is one reason Baker apparently called his former basketball coach at Warren High last fall and asked if he could assist with the team. In a letter to Judge Brown, Baker said he wanted to return to Warren High because his own "character and values were forged" at the school. Baker was student body president and valedictorian at the school, as well as an All-American high school basketball player.
The school's varsity basketball coach, Jan Young, said he believes that Baker came back to "see old friends and rediscover where he came from." Raised in a working-class family, Baker rose quickly professionally and financially, and in some ways, had taken his success for granted, Young said.
"Whatever Dave does in the future, I don't think he'll forget his roots this time," said Young, a coach at Warren since the early 1960s. "Dave got a lot awful fast. Maybe too fast."
From the first day of practice in November through the playoffs in March, Young said Baker commuted almost daily to Downey to attend practices and games.
"When Dave came to us, he was at the depths of his emotions," Young said. "But gradually, he came around. He found acceptance here. It was comfortable, like being at home."
Since last fall, home for Baker, his wife and two sons has been a small condominium in Tustin. Despite reports during last year's campaign that the couple's marriage was strained, friends say that Baker and his wife are closer than ever. During the holidays, Young said, Baker wrote a song about his problems and regrets, and sang it for his wife, Patricia, on Christmas Day.
To pay for legal expenses and other personal debts, the couple were forced to sell their Irvine home near South Lake in Woodbridge.
However, he still owes more than $90,000 to a number of political consultants, printers and pollsters who worked on his congressional campaign.
Baker's plans are unclear. Last week, Foster said, Baker left Kids Sports, even though the group has talked with him about a full-time, paid position. Foster said Baker is considering several options, including some opportunities to practice law again.
John Nakaoka, who managed Baker's congressional campaign, said, "The fact remains that Dave was a good attorney, who was good at bringing people together and reaching a settlement. Maybe he could serve as some sort of private arbitrator."