Federal grand jury now probing alleged courthouse tampering in O.C.
A federal grand jury will begin hearing testimony next month from dozens of people who allegedly paid to have drunk driving and other traffic-related violations “fixed” by a clerk.
The grand jury hearings are part of a probe by an Orange County corruption task force into nearly six years of alleged case tampering in the county courthouses.
Authorities believe a former clerk altered the minutes of 1,058 cases from October 2009 to March 2015. The clerk entered fake pleas and reduced penalties for defendants, who had paid thousands of dollars to have their cases cleansed, authorities said.
FBI agents have issued dozens of subpoenas in the most serious cases, mostly DUI convictions. The subpoenas order people to appear before a grand jury on July 8 or July 29, according to defendants and sources familiar with the probe.
FBI spokeswoman Laura Eimiller said there is an ongoing investigation into the alleged record altering but wouldn’t discuss specifics, including the subpoenas.
David Hernandez said he paid $8,000 to resolve his second DUI last fall. When he appeared at the Westminster court two weeks ago to resolve irregularities in the case, an FBI agent served him with a subpoena ordering him to appear July 8.
Court officials say they are only aware of one person inside the court system involved in the alleged scheme.
“The FBI has all the answers to the questions at this point,” said Jeffrey Wertheimer, legal counsel for Orange County Superior Court. Wertheimer said he could not comment on whether court records have been subpoenaed because of the ongoing FBI probe.
He said that during the last three weeks, more than 200 of the more serious cases with “altered minutes” were called back to the Westminster Superior Court to begin to resolve the cases. The courts will seek to correct all of the cases, he added.
The altered records were first uncovered in March when a court official noticed irregularities in a DUI case, Wertheimer said. The number of altered cases involves 230 misdemeanor cases and 828 infractions, Wertheimer said.
Wertheimer said that though Orange County’s high-tech computer system allows clerks with the appropriate access to change files easily, he said it also allowed administrators to track those actions.
Hours after the first case was detected, officials had a list of more than 1,000 cases. “We were able to shut him down immediately,” Wertheimer said. The clerk, an unidentified man, had worked in the courts for seven years. Officials wouldn’t say where he now is.
Sources familiar with the criminal investigation told The Times that the scheme appeared to target predominantly Latino defendants. Many attorneys have come forward, saying that despite records listing them as defendants’ lawyers, they never represented the clients.
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