SAN DIEGO — The state Commission on Judicial Performance is investigating whether three San Diego County judges gave favorable treatment to a prominent local attorney who provided them gifts over several years.
Two of the San Diego County Superior Court judges awarded multimillion dollar verdicts to clients of attorney Patrick Frega, who took the unusual step of asking that jury trials be waived in both cases so the judge alone could determine the size of the award.
The verdicts and the relationships between Frega and Judges Michael I. Greer, James A. Malkus and G. Dennis Adams are under scrutiny by commission authorities who are visiting San Diego this week.
The commission Thursday interviewed a former Frega associate about whether Frega may have telephoned Greer to ask that a certain case be assigned to a particular judge. The attorney, George Manning, said he was present at a meeting at which Frega telephoned Greer and appeared to ask for a special assignment in the case.
The two investigators from the state Commission on Judicial Performance also are raising questions about a 1989 boat ride around San Diego Bay on which Greer, Adams, Malkus and Superior Court Judge Barbara Gamer were Frega's guests along with attorneys, law clerks and others during which cocktails and hors d'oeuvres were provided.
The commission is charged with investigating complaints of judicial misconduct and making recommendations to the state Supreme Court, which has final authority over removing or reprimanding a judge.
One case involving Frega and Malkus prompted Bank of America attorneys to ask the Superior Court Thursday to recuse Malkus from a
tentative October, 1991, verdict in which he awarded a San Diego truck dealership $4 million.
The owner of the dealership, Norm Pressley, sued the bank over a loan it made and then later recalled.
Bank attorneys thought it unusual that Frega waived a jury trial in order to ask Malkus to decide the case. Normally, plaintiffs seek trials by juries, who are generally more likely to give higher money awards, Bank of America spokesman Peter Magnani said.
In 1985, Malkus reported on financial disclosure forms that Frega had given him $450 worth of gifts, including a charity dinner at St. Vincent de Paul and the use of Frega's Jeep.
The information was never passed along to Bank of America attorneys, a court document states.
Security Pacific Bank attorneys and commission investigators are questioning a similar case in 1986, in which Superior Court Judge Adams ordered Security Pacific National Bank to pay $5 million to a former San Diego car dealer who alleged that the bank's fraudulent business dealings caused him to lose dealerships in San Diego and Los Angeles.
Just as in the Bank of America case, attorney Frega asked Adams to waive his client's right to a jury trial. Frega had contributed the use of his computer to Adams for a book collaboration, which the judge valued at $1,400.
Greer, Malkus and Adams did not return calls Thursday for comment.
Frega, said an attorney familiar with the case, has "turned contract disputes into fraud (litigation). From the banks' standpoint, he has taken a negative loan situation and made his client millions."
The attorney called Frega "a very successful and aggressive lawyer who has made a lot of money representing failed auto dealers in lawsuits against banks."
Manning, a past associate of Frega, said he told two commission investigators Thursday that he was present at a meeting when Frega telephoned Judge Greer and appeared to ask that a particular case be assigned to a specific judge.
Manning said he also told the investigators that Frega may have been asking Greer for his thoughts on a case that Greer would later have to assign to a judge.
"I got the impression he was very cozy with this judge, and he was asking for some special assignment or something like that," Manning added. He said that the telephone call occurred in "1988 or 1989" but that he could not remember the details of the case or the judge involved.
Manning said he remembers being "flabbergasted" that Frega would have a private conversation with Greer about any upcoming case.
"He just picked up the phone and called right through to the judge about that particular case," said Manning, who resigned from the the firm in 1989 after he refused to try a case.
According to financial records filed by the judges, Frega gave Greer $1,520 in gifts between 1986 and 1991 in the form of a golf bag, sweaters, lunches and fruit baskets.
In August, 1990, Greer reported a $7,500 gift from the Los Angeles Rams football team, which paid for a one-week trip to Berlin for Greer and his wife to watch a National Football League exhibition game.
Friendships within the tightknit legal community are not uncommon. But the California Code of Judicial Conduct warns that judges should not "allow their families, social or other relationships to influence their judicial conduct or judgment."