COMPTON — Angry City Council members have asked a state ethics panel to investigate the conduct of a Los Angeles judge who has accused them of railroading a woman for allegedly growing three marijuana plants in her backyard.
With the action, city leaders rose to the defense of embattled Councilman Floyd A. James, who pleaded no contest in January to an election fraud charge that now could result in his ouster from office.
James is scheduled to be sentenced April 16 by Superior Court Judge Aurelio Munoz. But the judge has informed defense lawyers--and recently City Atty. Wesley Fenderson Jr.--that he intends to slap James with a felony, disqualifying him from office under California law, unless the council reverses a public-nuisance finding against Francesca Houpe.
A 34-year-old mother of two, Houpe testified last summer as a prosecution witness against James, and a few weeks later was arrested by Compton police on a tip from the councilman; Houpe denied knowing anything about the marijuana, and the Los Angeles County district attorney twice declined to file criminal charges. But the council nevertheless declared her home a nuisance and threated to start legal proceedings to possibly confiscate it if drugs are found on the property again.
At a City Council meeting last week, Fenderson told of a conversation he had with Munoz around mid-March, and he asked council members to write the judge explaining their decision in the nuisance case. Fenderson said that "this is the least we can do, not just to protect Floyd James, because that isn't my intent, but we have our own reputations to protect and they are at stake here."
Instead, the officials voted 3 to 1--at James' urging, even though he abstained from voting--to complain about the judge's sentencing demand in a letter to the Commission on Judicial Performance, which investigates charges of improper conduct.
"It seems as though he's blackmailing us or putting a knife in our backs and saying, 'You better do this, you better do that,' " said an indignant Mayor Walter R. Tucker.
At the request of James' defense lawyer, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr., Fenderson said he met with Munoz in the judge's chambers along with Deputy Dist. Atty. Candace J. Beason and her boss, Steven Sowders, chief of the special investigations division. Fenderson said the session began cordially but ended with tempers flaring.
Optional Felony Charge
Fenderson said Munoz "stated to me that he had the discretion to charge Councilman James with a felony or a misdemeanor" since the official had pleaded no contest to a charge of mailing an illegal notice to voters during his bitter 1985 reelection campaign. The judge went on to suggest "that in order to reduce that charge to a misdemeanor that Councilman James would have to get this council to reverse its decision in the Francesca Houpe case," Fenderson said.
"I advised him that Councilman James lacked that authority, and his reply to that statement was, 'Well, that (is) Councilman James' problem.' He felt that Councilman James influenced this council, the Police Department, the city attorney's office to find a public nuisance at Ms. Houpe's residence and this was done in retaliation for her testimony. . . . I tried to explain to him nothing could be further from the truth. But this was his position."
"Basically," Fenderson continued, "he was alleging that we all participated in some type of conspiracy to get back at this individual. Quite frankly, I was incensed at his suggestions and from that point on our conversation became very heated."
The judge told The Times he will not comment on a pending case.
Poised to File Right Suit
Fenderson said he refused to recommend that the council alter its decision in the marijuana case, in part because Houpe is poised to file a federal civil rights suit over the city's nuisance action. A reversal by the council now would damage the city's defense, Fenderson said.
"In effect, they're trying to tell us how to run this city," Fenderson told the council. He said Munoz "was questioning my judgment and the City Council's judgment and character.
"Such questions were put forth to me as, 'Well, why would we go against this lady because she was only growing three marijuana plants?' . . . I asked them did they allow people to grow marijuana plants in their neighborhoods, and, of course, the reply was 'No.' My response to that was, 'Why should we allow them to grow marijuana in Compton, even if it's only one plant?' "
Said Councilman Robert L. Adams Sr.: "I have some problems when a judge tells me something, (when) he's supposed to be weighing justice (but ends up) threatening me like this."
Ignoring Judge Suggested
Councilman Maxcy D. Filer suggested that the council simply ignore the judge.
"What he's trying to do is get us to corrupt our reputation by changing something," Filer said. "I think he's really overstepping his jurisdiction."