As hundreds of supporters, some with nursing babies in their arms, packed a federal courtroom Monday to show their support, Los Feliz pediatrician Dr. Paul Fleiss was sentenced to three years probation for conspiring to hide the profits from his daughter Heidi's call girl ring.
The thin, gray-haired doctor, who has practiced medicine in Los Feliz for 30 years, smiled in relief as U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall pronounced the sentence.
Outside the courtroom, he said that in retrospect, he should have handled things differently, but his motives were pure: "I never intended to cheat or lie or steal. I only wanted to help my daughter."
In addition to probation, the elder Fleiss--who has been left penniless by his family's legal travails--was fined $50,000 and ordered to serve 625 hours of community service. He also was sentenced to one day in prison, but will not serve any time behind bars because that part of his punishment was offset by credit for the day federal authorities had booked and processed him.
Although many of his patients and relatives contended that the punishment was too stiff, it stopped short of the sort of lengthy incarceration that would have meant an automatic suspension of his license to practice medicine.
That was a relief to the more than 200 supporters who packed the galleries and the more than 300 who had written to the judge in the doctor's behalf. Some parents drove an hour or more to come to the courthouse; some brought babies and toddlers for whom the doctor had cared for.
"He was only doing what any good father would do for his kid," said Connie Sciarra of Rosemead, whose 6-year-old daughter has seen Fleiss since birth. One letter to the judge suggested that the doctor be ordered merely to write a book for other parents who, like him, are forced to weigh their abhorrence of a child's wrongdoing against their love for the child.
Fleiss, 62, and his Hollywood Madam daughter were originally indicted together on 14 counts of tax evasion and money laundering. In their case--brought shortly after Heidi Fleiss' 1993 pandering arrest--government prosecutors charged that the doctor had been the "straw borrower" for his daughter's Benedict Canyon home, a $1.6-million hilltop hideaway that actor Michael Douglas had owned.
In loan documents, Paul Fleiss claimed to be the buyer and loan applicant, but Heidi Fleiss, her friends and, at various times, her call girls actually lived in the house. Prosecutors later showed how Heidi Fleiss had funneled cash from her illegal operation into her father's and other relatives' savings accounts and, from there, into the mortgage on the house.
Relatives of the father and daughter said the elder Fleiss had been manipulated by his daughter into getting involved in the real estate deal. She had pitched it to him and other relatives as a quick-turnaround investment, they said, and told them she could make the mortgage payments by charging rent to her roommates.
Heidi Fleiss, they said, had been wayward for years, but her father indulged her, hoping the bank would turn down the deal. Instead, the million-dollar mortgage was approved, and they got the house, which Heidi Fleiss turned into the headquarters of her ring.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Alejandro Mayorkas said the doctor eventually learned his daughter was involved in high-priced prostitution but had no inkling of the seamier side of her activities--the drug use and extortion, for example, that inevitably came with the prostitution trade.
However, Mayorkas noted, the doctor "was more than just a parent who turned the other way. He went to some lengths to help his daughter conceal her [operation] from the IRS."
"He was more active than someone who was just trying to help a child," Mayorkas said. "You don't help a child by participating in the illegal conduct."
Although the elder Fleiss had steadfastly refused to plea bargain in the immediate aftermath of the indictment, insisting that he had done nothing wrong, he finally signed a plea agreement in May admitting to three counts of conspiracy to conceal his daughter's illegal income and to making false statements on loan documents.
Heidi Fleiss, who already has been sentenced to three years on state pandering charges, was likewise convicted of conspiracy, tax evasion and money laundering in federal court last month. She is expected to be sentenced in December, and could face five years or more in federal prison.
On Monday, the 29-year-old Hollywood Madam sat behind her father and wept as his lawyer, Christopher G. Caldwell, made his appeal to the court. As she rushed from the courtroom, her eyes were red-rimmed.
"I'm just so sorry," she said. "He didn't deserve any of this."