Two ex-judges and a prominent attorney were convicted Friday in a judicial corruption case that exposed a “good old boy” system of favoritism in the San Diego courts that the trial judge said had been festering for years.
After seven days of deliberation, a federal court jury convicted ex-Superior Court Judges G. Dennis Adams and James Malkus and civil attorney Patrick R. Frega of conspiracy and multiple counts of mail fraud in a scheme whereby Frega showered the judges with gifts and favors and they gave him special treatment with his cases.
U.S. Atty. Alan Bersin said after the verdict that Frega had “eroded the moral sensibilities” of Adams, Malkus and former Judge Michael I. Greer, who had pleaded guilty and testified against the three defendants.
In a case closely watched by the nation’s lawyers and judges, all three defendants were convicted of conspiracy to commit racketeering, which could bring a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Frega was found guilty on 13 mail fraud counts, acquitted on five. He was also convicted of racketeering, which carries a 20-year maximum sentence.
Adams was convicted of five mail fraud counts, acquitted on 13. Malkus, the only defendant to testify, was convicted of six mail fraud counts, acquitted on 12.
Evidence showed that the judges handled dozens of Frega’s cases, received hundreds of telephone calls from him at their homes and offices, and met secretly with him to devise trial strategies without notifying opposing counsel. Prosecutors showed that Frega charged his clients for the cost of gifts to the judges, and that the gifts and phone calls increased whenever he had a pending case.
“That the payoffs in this case were not made in paper bags stuffed with cash made them even more insidious,” Bersin said. “The corruption engineered by Frega . . . infected the legal community with good-old-boy arrangements that made a mockery of the ideal of Lady Justice blinded to special favor.”
The mail fraud counts involve notes and letters exchanged among the three over a period of several years. Each mail fraud count could bring a maximum five-year sentence.
The defendants, whose relatives trembled and wept when the verdicts were read, vowed vigorous appeals and continued to insist they had done nothing criminal.
Adams’ wife, Superior Court Judge Barbara Gamer, buried her face in her husband’s shoulder and cried. Malkus’ son, Todd, said, “Oh no!” and put his hands over his face.
“I’m proud of what I’ve done for my clients and the victims I’ve represented,” said Frega as he left the courtroom. Frega, 51, was widely celebrated in his profession for winning multimillion-dollar judgments against banks, insurance companies and other corporations.
Jury foreman Jose Viesca said jurors had “searched our souls” before deciding to convict men who were once among the most respected members of the San Diego legal community. Some jurors appeared shaken.
“It was a very difficult case,” said Viesca, a schoolteacher. “We’re all drained. . . . I think Pat Frega is a great attorney. It’s sad what happened.”
U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie said, “This case represents a chapter in the history of legal affairs here in San Diego that has been festering for some time.” He set sentencing for January and allowed the defendants to remain free on bail.
Bersin, looking unusually somber for a lawyer who had just won a big trial, said the case should not be taken as a sign that the local court system is corrupt.
“The legal system triumphed here in the end,” Bersin said. “Court corruption was identified and no one--including judges--stood above the law.”
Hayden J. Trubitt, president of the San Diego County Bar Assn., said he was not surprised by the verdict because “the [judges’] conduct was injudicious in every sense of the word.”
“We feel there are only a few bad apples [in the local bar] and we’re getting rid of them,” Trubitt said.
Although only four people were criminally charged, the case laid bare what had been an easygoing relationship between many San Diego judges and lawyers for several years. Socializing and gift-giving were considered acceptable among judges and lawyers, and jurists did not recuse themselves from cases being tried by their friends.
During his summation to the jury, Chief Assistant U.S. Atty. Charles G. La Bella, the lead trial prosecutor, referred to coziness between judges and lawyers as San Diego’s “dirty little secret.”
“I think we put an end to the corruption with a big C,” La Bella said Friday. “But there is still stuff that didn’t rise to the level of federal criminal conduct: the winks and the nods and the hometownism that has gone on for years.”
Laurie Levenson, associate dean of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said she thinks the guilty verdicts will “make judges everywhere sit up and notice” because the case broadens the definition of what is criminal behavior.
“This case has been on the radar screen of judges across the country,” she said. “It will be taught in law schools for 20 years because it is not a case of flagrant bribe-taking but it still involves conduct that is not permissible. It tells judges that it’s not OK to come close to the [ethical] line.”
The fact the judges took gifts from Frega--car repairs, computers, jobs for their relatives, automobiles and more--and then did not list those gifts on the disclosure forms required of public officials was never in dispute.
The legal issue that had to be decided by the jury was whether the judges and Frega had entered into a conspiracy to act illegally and to violate a federal law designed to crack down on racketeering.
Prosecutors were not required to point out a single instance of a legal favor done in exchange for a gift. Greer, Malkus and Adams all insisted that they never made a ruling in a case involving Frega that was contrary to law.
That defense, however, was severely undercut by the strong-willed Rafeedie, a Los Angeles judge who took the case when all 11 judges on the San Diego federal bench recused themselves because they know the defendants. Rafeedie instructed the jury that it was not a defense that the legal actions rendered by the judges in cases involving Frega were legally sound.
That ruling--and Rafeedie’s refusal to delay the trial to give the defense attorneys more time to prepare--could form the basis of appeals. For the trial, Adams and Frega hired attorneys from firms noted for their successful appellate work.
“There may have been ethical lapses but there was absolutely no intent to commit a criminal act, no conspiracy at all,” said Harold Rosenthal, one of Frega’s attorneys.
Criminal convictions of judges in California are exceedingly rare, so much so that the state judges’ association does not even keep a tally. One estimate is that fewer than 10 judges have been convicted in the past three decades.
“When judges go bad, it sends a shock wave through the entire justice system and society as a whole,” said Sean Walsh, spokesman for Gov. Pete Wilson, when asked about the convictions. “We’re clearly concerned, and we hope the [American Bar Assn.] and law enforcement agencies are being absolutely rigorous in rooting out those few bad judges.”
Greer, 62, and Malkus, 59, resigned in 1993 amid an investigation by the state Commission on Judicial Performance. The commission sent scolding letters to a dozen judges who had accepted dinners and golf fees from attorneys. Adams, 55, was ousted in 1995 by the California Supreme Court.
The three judges allowed Frega to pick “friendly” judges for his cases, helped him prepare his motions and bullied opposing counsel into settling before trial, according to testimony at the trial. The value of the gifts Frega bestowed on the jurists and their families was put at about $100,000.
In exchange for his testimony, Greer received a promise from prosecutors that they would recommend probation. Greer was presiding judge of the San Diego County Superior Court for several years and earned statewide acclaim for his “fast-tracking” method of handling civil cases. He disappeared and attempted suicide when his indictment was imminent.
After the federal government began its inquiry two years ago, many in the legal community in San Diego grumbled that the investigation was unnecessary, arguing that the judges had been punished enough by the loss of their positions and reputations.
Robert Walsh, special agent in charge of the FBI office in San Diego, praised his agents for diligent work on what was “at times a very unpopular investigation.”
When he testified before the judicial commission, Adams accepted responsibility for having acted improperly and gotten too close to Frega. He made a similar comment as he left court Friday.
“I have nobody to blame but myself,” Adams said as he and his wife ran a gantlet of reporters.