State Probes Judicial Misconduct Accusations

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Glendale Municipal Court Commissioner Steven K. Lubell was on the bench when Judge James R. Simpson called and asked to meet with him.

A few minutes later, Lubell walked into the judge's chambers and was surprised to find Simpson talking to a political consultant and a defendant who had been in Lubell's courtroom on a traffic ticket.

The consultant, who had worked for Simpson, was praising the defendant, Lubell said in a sworn statement describing the May 11, 1999, incident.

"I was somewhat in a state of shock," Lubell said. "What is my defendant doing there with this gentleman . . . telling me what a good guy [the defendant] is? And why is Judge Simpson saying, 'What can we do about this?' "

Lubell is the second commissioner to say Simpson asked about the handling of a friend's traffic ticket, according to his sworn deposition obtained by The Times. His testimony was given in December in a federal lawsuit filed by his predecessor, former Commissioner Dona Bracke.

Bracke had sued Simpson and Los Angeles County for wrongful termination, alleging that Simpson wanted her to fix tickets for his friends and that she was fired because she refused to do so.

That suit was dismissed earlier this month. But depositions taken in Bracke's suit cover topics now under review by the state Commission on Judicial Performance, which is investigating Simpson.

Simpson and Bracke had a rocky relationship from the start. Simpson, a Republican, won the judicial seat vacated by former Rep. James Rogan in a 1994 election, beating a large field of candidates, including Bracke, who had been a commissioner since 1991, and Lubell, who became a commissioner in February 1999.

In an interview last week, Bracke, 48, now a prosecuting attorney in a Seattle suburb, said she had been put in an impossible position.

"He was my boss," she said. But "I knew that if I did what he asked me to, I knew I would lose my job." It is illegal to fix tickets.

Bracke said Simpson was "out to get her" from the time he became a judge in December 1994, an allegation that Simpson denied. Commissioners are subordinate judicial officers hired by judges to help with caseloads. At that time, Municipal Court commissioners served at the pleasure of the judges. Simpson had hired Lubell, but not Bracke.

Simpson, 65, declined to comment Friday because the disciplinary investigation is ongoing. He said he had expected Bracke's lawsuit to be dismissed.

"That is one hurdle out of the way," he said.

Bracke's lawyer, Diane Goldman, said she is considering an appeal and will ask the state attorney general's office to investigate.

Simpson has been on "indefinite medical leave" since January, said Los Angeles County Superior Court Supervising Judge Carl J. West. Simpson, a retired deputy district attorney, continues to collect his $133,051 annual salary.

In his deposition taken in Bracke's suit, Simpson said he did not recall talking to Bracke about traffic tickets. But Simpson acknowledged calling Lubell into his chambers. Simpson said he did not try to influence Lubell's handling of the traffic case.

"I did not discuss the merits of the citation," he testified. "I just wanted to make sure [the case] was handled in an appropriate fashion."

The California Code of Judicial Ethics specifically states that judges "shall not initiate communications with a sentencing judge" to provide unsolicited information about a case. Judges are ethically barred from using their influence to gain special treatment in court proceedings for themselves and others.

The last Los Angeles-area judge accused of ticket-fixing, Charles Boags of Beverly Hills, was found guilty in 1989 of conspiring to obstruct justice. He was removed from office and stripped of his license to practice law.

Lubell, 45, declined to discuss the misconduct allegations against Simpson.

According to Lubell's deposition, defendant Mark Enzenauer of Monrovia pleaded guilty in March 1999 to not registering his black 1983 Nissan pickup truck. He was ordered to return to court a month later to prove the vehicle had been registered.

When Enzenauer, a videographer, didn't show, Lubell issued a bench warrant for his arrest. Enzenauer, then 35, returned to court May 3, 1999, but apparently left before his case was called, according to court records.

Eight days later, he returned with Allen E. Brandstater, his employer and a well-known Republican consultant in Glendale, according to Lubell's deposition. That's when Lubell's encounter with Simpson took place.

"I was called into Judge Simpson's chambers and asked why this person, in essence . . . had to wait so long and what could be done about it," said Lubell, who had been a commissioner for just three months at the time.

Enzenauer and Brandstater declined to comment.

Lubell said it "crossed his mind" that Simpson may have been seeking special treatment for Enzenauer. But he said he is uncertain why Simpson called him.

"It's subject to debate right now even, in my own mind," Lubell said.

Bracke testified in her suit that although Simpson did not expressly ask her for favorable treatment for his friends, she believes that's what he wanted.

Bracke could not recall names or specific dates when Simpson approached her about cases. She testified she recalled four instances when Simpson asked "what can be done about" tickets.

One case, in particular, stands out. Bracke said she was on the bench in a crowded courtroom when she heard noise in the private hallway behind her, and looked up to see Simpson.

"He had his arm up around his [friend's] shoulder and he looked up at me and said, 'Dona, this is my friend that I was telling you about on the ticket.' "

Then, Simpson "kind of patted him on the shoulder and looked at him and said, 'Oh, she'll really take care of you now.' " His remarks, she said, could be heard by others in the courtroom.

Bracke testified she was "pretty mortified, not because of what I was going to do . . . but for the appearance to an entire courtroom that another judge could walk his friend in and then all these people wouldn't know if that was special treatment he got or not special treatment."

Bracke testified that she handled the case like any other. When the man's wife did not appear in court, Bracke issued a bench warrant for her arrest. She said she recalled the warrant after Simpson's friend explained that his wife was ill. She gave the defendant two weeks to prove she had been hospitalized and unable to go to court.

Before she was fired, Bracke was embroiled in controversy for jailing dozens of defendants in court on traffic matters on suspicion of perjury for allegedly lying about whether they have auto insurance. She stopped the practice.

In his deposition, Simpson, who was the presiding judge in 1997 and 1998, denied firing Bracke for her handling of the insurance cases. He said she was terminated after eight years for her demeanor on the bench.

"The thrust of the decision dealt not with traffic trials and/or the insurance problem," he testified, "but [with] her general conduct on the bench and doesn't necessarily deal with a particular case."

Earlier this year, Simpson asked the same 11-member commission investigating his alleged misconduct for a disability retirement.

He suffered a stroke a month after becoming a judge in December 1994, he said in his deposition. He had heart surgery in 1995, another stroke around 1998 and fell last September, fracturing a vertebrae and forcing him to walk with a cane, he testified. He also had surgery on a shoulder.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
61°