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Probe Clears 3 Judges of Wrongdoing : Courts: They are sent letters by state panel advising them of the results of the inquiry. Three other judges remain under investigation.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Three of six San Diego Superior Court judges under investigation by the state Commission on Judicial Performance have been sent private “advisory” letters clearing them of wrongdoing, The Times learned Monday.

Judges James R. Milliken, Vincent P. DiFiglia and Herbert B. Hoffman all received the confidential letters in the past two weeks after the commission inquired about golf tournament fees the three had received from prominent San Diego personal-injury attorney Vincent J. Bartolotta Jr.

The commission’s investigation into the conduct of three other judges--Michael I. Greer, James A. Malkus and G. Dennis Adams--is continuing, sources said.

Financial disclosure forms show that Hoffman, who handles civil cases in the Vista branch of the Superior Court, listed $630 in tournament fees from Bartolotta in 1990 and 1991.

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Milliken, the assistant presiding judge, listed $1,250 in golf fees from Bartolotta for the past three years. DiFiglia, who hears civil cases in the downtown courthouse, reported $2,100 in golf fees from the same source since 1989.

“As far as my case is concerned, the investigation is terminated,” said DiFiglia, 50, who was appointed to the bench in 1987.

“I would love to comment on all this,” said Milliken, 48, “but, due to ethical constraints, I am not in a position to speak publicly.”

Hoffman, 49, did not return calls for comment. Bartolotta also could not be reached for comment.

All three judges received what is known as an “advisory letter after staff inquiry,” which means the commission has determined that its investigation of alleged wrongdoing “does not constitute a basis for further proceedings.”

In general, the letters may or may not make recommendations to the judges of ways to avoid potential future conflicts.

Judge Arthur W. Jones, presiding judge of the 71-judge Superior Court, said he had not been told of the commission’s findings involving Hoffman, DiFiglia and Milliken. Told by The Times Monday that they had been cleared, Jones said he was not surprised.

“If those are the results, I’m very pleased,” he said. “I’ve known all three men for at least 10 years, and they are honest men of strong character. They reported what they reported (on their disclosure forms) because they knew it was their obligation. All they did was play some golf.”

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All three judges had been deeply worried about “the image cast on the whole bench as well as themselves,” Jones said. “They must be relieved.”

Although the three have been cleared, the commission continues to investigate the behavior of Malkus, Greer and Adams, centering on whether they gave favorable treatment to a prominent local attorney who provided them gifts over the years, sources said.

Adams said Monday that he had been on vacation and has not heard anything from the commission. Sources said Greer has not yet been interviewed by the commission. Greer declined to comment. Malkus did not return calls for comment.

Victoria Henley, director and chief counsel of the commission, declined Monday to confirm or deny that letters had been sent to Milliken, DiFiglia and Hoffman or that Malkus, Greer and Adams were still under investigation. The commission conducts its proceedings in secret, she said.

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In April, two commission investigators visited San Diego to scrutinize the relationship between La Jolla personal-injury attorney Patrick Frega and Malkus, Greer and Adams to determine whether the judges gave the attorney preferential treatment in exchange for gifts.

Adams has acknowledged a close friendship with Frega but said a $5-million verdict he directed toward a Frega client occurred a year before they became friends and collaborated on a book. Greer and Malkus also have denied favoritism but have declined to be specific about their relationships with Frega.

Aware of the state probe, Greer in April declared a mistrial in a case in which he had previously ordered a $2-million verdict for a client whose attorney had provided Greer $1,600 in free legal services.

Greer had disclosed the services on financial disclosure forms. But he had not disclosed his relationship with attorney Peter Gamer to all the lawyers in the case, court records indicate.

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Investigations of complaints about a judge’s alleged misconduct start in one of two ways, Henley said--with a less-intrusive “staff inquiry” or a more thorough “preliminary investigation.”

If, after a staff inquiry, the commission decides the judge has done no wrong, it ends the matter with the “advisory letter,” in which the commission tells the judge that there is no basis for further proceedings. Milliken, DiFiglia and Hoffman received such letters.

The inquiry may, however, lead to a preliminary investigation to determine whether the case deserves to be pursued.

A preliminary investigation can lead to a private letter of admonishment, which typically ends the case, Henley said. Or, she said, the preliminary probe may lead to formal proceedings against a judge, usually a hearing before a panel of three “special masters,” judges appointed to preside over the case.

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At that hearing, which the commission may open to the public if the charges are grave enough, the state attorney general’s office presents evidence against the judge, who has the right to contest the case.

So far, the commission has not made a referral of formal proceedings against Malkus, Greer or Adams to the state attorney general’s office, according to Gary Schons, head of the San Diego office.

The three-judge panel issues a report to the commission, which then decides whether to dismiss the case, to issue a private letter of reprimand or a public letter of reproval or to file charges in the state Supreme Court seeking censure or removal, Henley said. The Supreme Court then takes a fresh look at the case and makes its own decision, she said.

In recent years, Henley said, those cases that make it all the way through the process to the Supreme Court have involved “a laundry list” of alleged judicial misconduct, a “large number of acts which necessarily tend to involve longer investigations and longer hearings.”

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It can take a year or longer, Henley said, for an investigation to evolve into a Supreme Court case.


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