A lawyer who knows Patrick R. Frega--the attorney at the center of a burgeoning bribery scandal--says Frega "is not a 9-to-5 lawyer. He's a litigator 24 hours a day."
That even included one Christmas when Frega sent out a yule card showing a barefoot Santa delivering a kick to a nerdy fellow in a blue suit, with money flying out of the guy's suitcase. Frega explained that it was symbolic of his legal style of representing "the little guy."
"To get justice from insurance companies, manufacturers and bankers, you have to use commando-type tactics," Frega told a reporter at the time. "We go to war for our clients."
Now, according to a guilty plea Monday by a former Superior Court judge and close friend of Frega, there are allegations that Frega's legal tactics included bribing judges who were hearing his cases.
Former Judge Michael Greer, in pleading guilty to bribery, said he accepted $75,000 over seven years to influence more than 40 of Frega's cases and that two other judges, James Malkus and G. Dennis Adams, also accepted bribes from Frega. Prosecutors have not identified the cases.
Right from the start, Frega, 51, was not your usual San Diego attorney. He kept a skull, a samurai sword and nunchukas on his office wall. He talked of his prowess as a martial arts expert, and kept copies of Soldier of Fortune magazine in his waiting room.
He said he learned his "street smarts" while growing up in Newark, N.J. At 6-foot-3 with a bodybuilder's physique, he has an intimidating manner, a high-swept black pompadour and a preference for stylish, tailored suits.
He reveled in telling acquaintances in San Diego that he was a Marine who spent 22 months in Vietnam, had been wounded in combat, and had killed enemy soldiers in hand-to-hand combat.
In a town where the legal establishment is Republican, Frega attended Democratic fund-raisers, particularly those organized to help congressional candidates friendly to trial lawyers.
A 1974 graduate of the Stetson University law school in Florida, he moved to San Diego in the early 1980s and quickly became known both for socializing with judges and for winning multimillion-dollar verdicts. He reportedly met Greer at a legal seminar.
When he won $8 million in 1984 for a former police officer who was beaten by a pool hall bouncer, the city's clubby legal establishment took notice. When he won $7 million for a car dealer against a bank, he was named trial lawyer of the year by the San Diego Trial Lawyers Assn. and moved to ritzy Rancho Santa Fe.
Along the way, he made his share of enemies and admirers. "I've spent many an hour swapping [anti-] Frega stories with other lawyers," said lawyer Robert Steiner, the loser in the $7-million case.
Sebastian D'Amico, who has worked both with and against Frega, called him "an excellent trial lawyer, a notch above other lawyers in town, an assertive advocate." He said Frega was "not a 9-to-5 lawyer."
Frega sued doctors for malpractice, banks for bad-faith dealings with borrowers and drivers for injuring others in traffic accidents. He represented investors in the J. David Dominelli case, a $120-million Ponzi scheme that fleeced many of the San Diego elite.
One attorney said of Frega, "He was one of those lawyers who wins more through his forceful personality than his legal skills."
But another attorney said Frega was superbly prepared whenever he stepped into a courtroom. "Pat took no prisoners when he took a case," said this lawyer. "He was a good enough lawyer he didn't need this [bribery] kind of stuff."
Frega has received a letter from federal prosecutors saying he may soon be indicted, along with two other judges he allegedly bribed. He is no longer answering questions. Gone are the days when he was one of the first San Diego lawyers to hire a publicist to tout his victories.
While winning cases, he also acquired a reputation, particularly among defense counsel, for unduly playing "hardball," such as stalling on discovery motions, slipping in surprise evidence and employing a confrontational style. There were also cases in which lawyers he worked with later claimed he did not pay them as promised.
"We always felt we needed to keep him at arm's length," said lawyer Michael Neil, a partner in one of the city's major civil law firms and a retired Marine brigadier general. "I personally never had a problem with him but because of the reputation he established, we did not want much to do with him."
At the same time, Frega's friendship with Greer, Malkus and Adams was widely noted in the legal community. Greer, 61, and Frega often went to lunch together and acted "like father and son," said one lawyer.
Frega represented Greer and his wife in lawsuits over repairs done to the couple's Volkswagen in 1984. The same year, a former client sued Frega for malpractice and Greer was the judge in the settlement conference.
Both Adams and Malkus, acting without juries, awarded million-dollar judgments in behalf of Frega's clients. Adams was the judge in the $7-million case, which was upheld on appeal. Malkus tentatively awarded a Frega client $4 million. But the losing lawyer, having heard about an investigation of the links between Frega and Malkus, asked Malkus to disqualify himself and assign the case to another judge, which he did.
Adams and Frega worked on a 700-page unpublished novel about World War II. The judges went on moonlit bay cruises with Frega and, according to their state-required disclosure forms, accepted small gifts from him: fruit baskets, sweaters, use of a Jeep and tickets to a charity event.
In the plea bargain submitted Monday to a federal judge in Los Angeles, however, a much different story was told.
Greer admitted to receiving $75,000 from Frega to help him with cases, including coaching witnesses, providing inside information and steering cases to friendly judges. A San Diego car dealer, admitting guilt in withholding evidence from the state Commission on Judicial Performance, said Frega paid $65,000 to purchase and repair cars for the three judges.
The judges have now all lost their jobs--Greer and Malkus resigned and Adams was ousted by the California Supreme Court. Only Frega, so far, has escaped censure and still practices law, from an office in Del Mar.
His attorney, Dennis Riordan of San Francisco, promises a vigorous defense if Frega is indicted. According to court documents, charges being considered against Frega, Adams and Malkus are bribery, tax evasion and racketeering. As part of their plea bargains, Greer and the car dealer, James J. Williams Jr., promised to cooperate.
"Pat has always been very un-San Diego and it didn't bother him a bit," said one attorney. "This is a town where opposing counsel are friendly. Pat would not shake your hand. He preferred to go for your jugular."