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Fraud Is a Big Deal? That’s the Case Here

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com. An archive of his recent columns is at www.latimes.com/parsons.

The road to fame in a district attorney’s office typically doesn’t run through the fraud division. If you want to get somewhere fast or get on TV, you best lay down tracks prosecuting violent crimes. You’ll get plenty of courtroom time, the cases have more sizzle and the outside world will pay more attention.

What sounds more career-stimulating? Tracing the trajectory of bullets or vouchers? Looking for crime-scene DNA or tax returns? Poking holes in ingenious alibis or photostatting canceled checks?

Ron Cafferty accepts this pecking-order reality with the relaxed air of a man who isn’t trying to get anywhere, except to retirement next spring.

In his 25-year career in the Orange County district attorney’s office, the 61-year-old deputy has worked narcotics, homicide, gangs and a few others along the way. And that all came after five years as an Air Force prosecutor.

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He joined the fraud division in 1997 and will be the first to acknowledge that the gig lands a bit off Broadway.

“Few people tend to volunteer for it,” he says dryly.

And yet, the reason I sought him out in his cramped 5th-floor office is because he’s fresh from a case that’s the white-collar equivalent of a high-profile murder trial.

This month, he won the conviction of Jeffrey Hambarian, a former executive of a trash and recycling business who bilked the city of Orange of $4.3 million and now faces up to 20 years in prison.

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Hambarian ran his scheme from 1984 until well into the 1990s.

The district attorney’s office filed charges in 1998, but the case was so complex, it went to trial only in March.

In short, it was a big deal. For that reason, it made me curious whether the victorious prosecutor is the least bit put out that white-collar crime -- with no dead bodies or bizarre motives -- doesn’t quite grab the public.

Rest easy. Cafferty is bearing up quite well. He doesn’t need the pub and realizes why most people don’t relate to his niche of crime-fighting.

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Given the myriad television shows about cops and crime-solving, most people have a general sense of what it takes to prosecute murders, rapes and kidnappings, Cafferty says. “But on a white-collar type of crime, they probably have no sense of what it took to put it together.”

If murder trials titillate, fraud trials can numb.

Cafferty’s team interviewed more than 150 witnesses before presenting their case in court. Cafferty took database classes to help him lay out the evidence. Ultimately, the guts of the case was 825 canceled checks.

“What makes it challenging in a different way is that you have to spend a lot of time getting on top of a lot of data, information, paperwork and records, and you have to organize it,” says Cafferty, sounding a little like an accountant. Such cases also require complete mastery of the details, because they’re too voluminous and complex to review over and over again.

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And, oh yes, then you have to convince 12 jurors of what it all means, without confusing them or putting them to sleep. Often that boils down to this: was the defendant out to defraud, or was he just a lousy businessman?

Cafferty had to prove what he thought fairly early on about Hambarian: “It was obvious he was stealing, but it wasn’t so obvious as to how he was doing it, and the schemes he was using. We had to uncover those.”

I ask Cafferty if the verdict was a good one to cap a career.

“Because it’s the case I probably spent more time on than any other, and probably any 10 others combined,” Cafferty says, “yeah, I definitely consider it a big case.”

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His bosses gave him kudos, he says, and yet ...

“Even though I’ve been in the prosecution business for 30 years, I didn’t realize what went into a case like this until I got involved in a case like this,” Cafferty says. “I’m sure most lawyers out there in our office, they have no notion of what’s involved. You don’t know it until you do it.”


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