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Embezzler Repays Victims, Avoids Jail

Times Staff Writer

A disbarred attorney working at South Gate City Hall avoided a prison term Wednesday after paying restitution to embezzlement victims, but she still owes other creditors more than $300,000 awarded in fraud, malpractice and other lawsuits.

A judge in downtown Los Angeles suspended a three-year prison term for Cristeta Paguirigan after prosecutors said she complied with his order to pay $33,900 to six victims. He also sentenced her to 45 days of community service: picking up trash with a Caltrans crew. She pleaded guilty in April to one count of embezzlement.

Paguirigan, a 1984 graduate of UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, had a history of felony convictions before she began working last year in South Gate through the Los Angeles law firm of Albright, Yee & Schmit.

In the mid-1990s, she was convicted on two felony counts for embezzling $37,500 from a Long Beach company. She was also convicted of forgery, which led to her disbarment in 1998.

Interviewed before Wednesday’s hearing, Paguirigan said she plans to pay all the civil judgments against her. She is accused of stealing clients’ money, crafting fraudulent agreements, abandoning cases and bouncing checks. One elderly woman said Paguirigan stole her life savings after convincing her to create a joint trust account.

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In South Gate, Paguirigan continues racking up fees of $200 an hour as a litigation specialist for the city. Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba has called her past lawbreaking a mistake, while she and her council allies authorized payments of $350,000 for her work over the past 12 months, according to billing records.

Paguirigan denied accusations that she has eluded creditors by avoiding court appearances, constantly changing residences and changing her name.

“There’s never any secret about where I am,” she said.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys disagreed. “Where is she? I’ve been trying to find her for over two years,” said Charles Alpert, a lawyer for a Los Angeles woman who won a $50,000 malpractice case against Paguirigan.

“I’ve always wanted to serve her with a judgment debtor documents,” he said in an interview, “but then she hides.”

Paguirigan is her maiden name, which she used throughout her marriage, according to Stephen Martin, her ex-husband’s attorney. After Paguirigan’s 1999 divorce, Martin said she changed her last name to her ex-husband’s, Klaparda.

Since 1997, more than a dozen former clients, landlords and friends have won civil judgments against her, ranging from $1,000 to $190,000. The majority were default judgments after Paguirigan failed to respond to the lawsuits. Some were wiped out when Paguirigan declared bankruptcy in 2000. Others were repaid as part of the plea agreement in the most recent embezzlement case.

The largest known civil judgment against Paguirigan involves the estate of Doris Margaret Loss, an elderly Pico Rivera woman who said Paguirigan stole her life savings of $160,000. Loss died shortly after the money disappeared, said her attorney, Eugene Gleason. The default judgment of $197,000, which includes interest and attorney fees, was entered in 2000.

Though the family has recovered $50,000 through a victims fund set up by the California State Bar, Gleason said they don’t have much hope of getting the rest. The family never notified authorities, he said, because they feared Paguirigan would flee the country.

Paguirigan blamed her troubles on poor management of her legal practice. She lost control of her finances, she said, because the business grew too quickly.

Gleason took another view. “She is unscrupulous, reprehensible, dishonorable to the profession,” he said. “For her to prey upon someone who was so elderly and in a hospital bed in her home ... that’s pretty low.”

Others who have won judgments against Paguirigan include a Las Vegas landlord who said she skipped out on rent payments of $41,000, and a West Hollywood man who said Paguirigan owes him $4,900 after misrepresenting herself as a lawyer when she had been disbarred.

Paguirigan is not licensed to practice as an attorney, but her hourly fee of $200 tops those of many lawyers.

City billing records show that Paguirigan appears to play a major role in city affairs.

She prepares agenda items, revises contracts and writes press releases. She also has access to some personnel files and works on investigations of city employees.


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