Wednesday, September 7, 2016
Court clerk at center of massive bribery scheme forged records for drunk drivers and others, prosecutors say
Joel Rubin, Richard Winton
For some of the drunk drivers, speeders and red-light runners of Orange County, the most powerful person to know wasn’t a judge, a prosecutor or a defense attorney. It was a low-level paper pusher who rarely saw the inside of a courtroom, authorities say.
In 2010, word began spreading quietly through the seamier corners of the O.C’s vibrant car enthusiast scene that there was someone working inside the county courts who, for a price, could make a criminal charge or ticket disappear.
“This is the most widespread scandal to hit Orange County’s legal system since the sheriff got sent to prison,” said Virginia Landry, a respected Orange County defense attorney, referring to the 2009 sentence for former Sheriff Michael S. Carona in a corruption case. “That is a huge number of cases. It went on for such a long time under the noses of people working in the court.”
FBI investigators began looking into the allegations against Lopez in June 2015 when court officials publicly acknowledged the bogus cases. A court official said at the time that an internal review had identified manipulated cases dating back to 2010, a claim supported by the federal indictment.
Lopez’s attorney, Brian Gurwitz, said his client entered a not-guilty plea Wednesday afternoon.
“My client is very remorseful about the bad judgment he exercised and the harm that his conduct caused the Orange County Superior Court and his family,” Gurwitz said.
The indictment documents dozens of payments to various middlemen and the steps Lopez then allegedly took to close out the person’s case.
In one example, on the same day prosecutors say a man caught driving on a suspended license handed $1,000 to an accused middleman, Lopez logged into the man’s case in the court’s computer system. Lopez manufactured a court hearing to make it appear as though a judge had decided the man would be allowed to perform community service instead of paying a fine, the indictment alleged.
Lopez allegedly charged $450 to make it look like a man had been sentenced to two days in county jail and served his time in a public intoxication case in another instance the following year.
In a text exchange detailed in the indictment, a man interested in having speeding tickets dismissed asked Jeff Fernandez, a defendant in the case, how it was possible.
“I have a buddy,” Fernandez replied. “I’ve taken care of 15+ speeding tickets now. Super simple and way better than paying the court.”
“I just give you the money and the ticket goes away?” the man asked.
“A few days after you give me the money, it’s like you never got the ticket,” Fernandez wrote back.
In all, 1,034 cases were fixed, the indictment said, the majority of them traffic infractions.
But it was the 69 driving under the influence cases for which Lopez charged the highest fees, prosecutors said. The bribes for those went as high as $8,000 to fix cases, according to the indictment. In one of the cases highlighted in court papers, a man paid $6,500 in February 2014. In exchange, Lopez is said to have fabricated a court record showing the man’s DUI charge was dismissed after he pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of reckless driving.
Lopez is accused of receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, although investigators said they have not yet tallied the full amount. He spent the money in part on vacations abroad and in Las Vegas, as well as on a restaurant he opened in Garden Grove, the indictment contends.
Ten of the indicted men, including Lopez, were arrested Wednesday morning. The two who remain at large are expected to be taken into custody in coming days, officials said. Beyond changing computer records, Lopez forged prosecutors’ signatures in some cases, the indictment said.
Federal authorities allege that Lopez “fixed” the cases without the knowledge of prosecutors or judges.
“This defendant allegedly assumed the roles of judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys to line his pockets in a staggering abuse of his position. Very simply, he compromised the entire justice system in Orange County,” U.S. Atty. Eileen Decker said in a statement.Jeffrey Wertheimer, general counsel for the Orange County Superior Court, described Lopez as a little-noticed cog in the court’s bureaucratic machine.
“Occasionally, he’d be in a courtroom and most of the time in an office somewhere,” Wertheimer said.
The clerk, he added, had exploited the court’s reliance on computer technology. The system had ultimately been his undoing as well, however, when another clerk noticed an incomplete electronic record in one of Lopez’s cases, which led to a probe. Lopez left the court’s employment soon after.
In the wake of the scandal, Wertheimer said, the courts have engineered preventive measures into the system and appointed an auditor.
“It is her job to go through records and ensure they are handled correctly,” he said.