After getting arrested on suspicion of a second DUI last fall, David Hernandez heard from a friend of a friend that there was someone in the Orange County court system who could “fix things.”
Last November, Hernandez said, he paid $8,000 through a middleman to the fixer. For a while, it seemed as though the case had gone away.
But about three weeks ago, Hernandez received a letter ordering him to appear in a Westminster court Friday. There, officials told him they had discovered irregularities in his case.
Officials now say that about 1,000 DUI and misdemeanor traffic cases were “fixed” by a clerk, who has not been identified. The clerk apparently created fake plea deals with heavily reduced penalties.
The FBI began examining cases last week, and Orange County prosecutors have their own ongoing investigation.
Jeffrey Wertheimer, legal counsel for the Orange County Superior Court system, said the cases date back to 2010 and include courts across the county.
He said all of the cases appear to be tied to the clerk, who had left his job in recent months. Wertheimer would not say whether the employee was fired.
“That is big-time corruption,” said Stanley Goldman, a Loyola law professor and veteran criminal lawyer. “While the individuals’ cases might be relatively low-level offenses, with so many together that adds up to a very serious criminal enterprise.”
Law enforcement 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, Wertheimer said.
The courts will seek to correct all of the cases, he added. That process began last week and continued in a courthouse in Westminster on Friday, where defendants were summoned with their attorneys to appear before a judge.
About 30 people waited in Judge Thomas Borris’ courtroom for their names to be called. The allegations against them — mostly misdemeanors — included unsafe lane changes or DUIs, not having car insurance or operating vehicles with tinted windows. The judge grilled every defendant.
“Do you remember being in jail?” he asked some. Most replied that they had never done any time for their offense. If that was the case, Borris told them their fines and fees would be reinstated and he asked the defendants whether they would like to talk to a prosecutor about a plea bargain.
One defendant, Osvaldo Garcia, who had amassed about 20 tickets, asked Borris for an estimated lump sum payment he could make. He said he would sell some of his cars to pay the fines.
The fixed cases were uncovered when another court employee discovered an incomplete DUI case, leading to a review of all cases entered by the clerk who had handled the case, the court attorney said.
An Orange County public corruption task force is investigating the illegal case resolutions.
Goldman said that with so many cases involved, the scheme had likely netted huge sums of money and would probably take months to unravel. Goldman said the computerization of the court system might make it easier for a person on the inside to subvert the legal process and make cases disappear or fraudulently resolve them.
“I am surprised in the DUIs that police officers never got suspicious when they didn’t get called” to court, Goldman said.
Virginia Landry, an Orange County DUI attorney, said attorneys in her firm and others were called to the court on behalf of clients they had never heard of before. They suspect someone used the names of actual attorneys to make the resolutions look legitimate.
Lolita Kirk, a Santa Ana criminal defense attorney, received a notice to appear before Borris concerning three defendants. Court records indicated they had been her clients, but she told the judge she had never represented them.
Hernandez was ordered to return to the courtroom for sentencing. With regret, he said he remembered that the go-between who gave the money to the court fixer told him that the person “can help you right away. It will be taken care of.”
His second DUI happened late last year. He had returned home after drinking at a bar, he said, but then he got a call from a woman he knew who needed a ride.
“That was a mistake, jumping back into the car after the few drinks,” Hernandez said. “It’s a mistake and a lesson I’m learning from.”
Now Hernandez, who lives with a sister and has to take public transportation to work, has to scrape together money to hire a lawyer. He desperately wants to avoid going to jail and would rather pay fines and do community service, he said.
As he walked down the court hallway, an FBI agent followed him and handed him a subpoena. He will have to go to federal court July 8 as a witness against the suspected fixer, Hernandez said.
Hernandez now regrets not listening to his boss at a golf equipment company — one of his two jobs — about whether he should go with the fixer.
“I talked to my boss and asked him, ‘Should I do it?’” Hernandez recalled. “He said to do it the right way. But I was stubborn and did it this way. If I wasn’t so stubborn, I could have avoided this easily.”