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Tangled Permit Case Is 'Weird,' Judge Says : Courts: Couple is accused of illegally erecting home. At a hearing, they call an official dishonest. And a key witness has died.

February 08, 1994|DOUG SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The judge took one look at the case and said with all the wisdom of his 28 years in criminal justice: "Something weird is going on here."

Rendered almost speechless by its weirdness, he told the opposing parties that "when you see a case like this, you say, 'Oh my God.' "

And that was before the Northridge earthquake knocked his court out of commission and a key witness died, apparently of an alcohol overdose, three days before he was to testify that he paid $75,000 in bribes to county officials.

A pretrial hearing in the case got started last week with two days of testimony from the first of 20 witnesses who are to be called in a highly unusual motion to dismiss a misdemeanor zoning case.

The defendants, a Topanga couple charged with 14 counts that accuse them of building a 700-square-foot rental house without permits, allege in their defense that they are being prosecuted in retaliation for blowing the whistle on a dishonest county employee.

As a result, they are being allowed to hold a sort of trial-within-a-trial, a hearing at which they can lay out their defense accusing county officials of corruption.

In the hearing which continued Monday, Kathleen Kenny and Art Starz are attempting to convince Santa Monica Superior Court Judge James A. Albracht that they are being harassed by a building official who they say they exposed in a newsletter mailed to 3,000 Topanga residences.

During two days of strained testimony last week, Kenny recounted her three-year dispute with county officials in such expansive detail that Albracht frequently interrupted in frustration, at one point saying he didn't need to know the "Gone With the Wind panorama" of every incident.

Kenny and Starz contend in court documents that they spent thousands of dollars trying to get a building permit, but that it was withheld because they refused to pay bribes.

"The question is, why didn't they get the permits?" the couple's attorney, James Fosbinder, asked Albracht in court.

"We maintain it's because they didn't make the payoffs that were attempted to be extorted from them. . . . They have been tortured and harassed by a crooked building inspector," Fosbinder continued.

The county employee they are accusing, district engineering associate Grant Lawseth, is expected to be called as a witness this week.

Fosbinder said he will also call Lawseth's wife to explain a trail of complicated real estate transactions. In an earlier court hearing, Fosbinder said the transactions showed that she and her husband apparently received "discounted real estate or gifts of real estate" from individuals seeking building permits.

Lawseth has declined to answer any questions about the assertions made against him, saying he was precluded from discussing the case while it is being tried. But he angrily denounced the couple and their lawyer, saying their accusations are false.

"It's unbelievable," he said in a telephone interview. "It's really incredible that people can make these allegations. Who is this guy who's all of a sudden coming up here and manufacturing these stories?

"Who is this clown? None of the stuff he is saying is even reasonable."

The case, originally filed in August in Municipal Court, was elevated to Superior Court after several Municipal Court judges declined to hear it.

In a three-hour pretrial hearing Dec. 16, Albracht said it appeared to him the case had "grown so far out of proportion that, as a person involved in the criminal justice system for 28 years, I say to myself something weird is going on here. Something very weird is going on."

Ultimately though, Albracht approved calling all but 9 of the 33 witnesses Fosbinder wanted to subpoena in his attempt to establish the defense argument that Lawseth is part of an extortion enterprise.

The hearing was scheduled to begin Jan. 18, but was postponed when the Santa Monica courthouse was closed due to damage from the Northridge earthquake. It finally got started on Jan. 31 in a makeshift courtroom in the basement of the Malibu courthouse.

In her first day on the witness stand, Kenny said she believed that she was solicited for a bribe by a county health inspector, Arnold Fielding, during hours of rambling conversations, parts of which she tape-recorded. She said Fielding introduced himself to her on the first of 16 visits by saying, that "the winds were all blowing up" and he had been sent "to nail her."

Reading from a two-inch-thick stack of transcripts of those tape recordings, Kenny quoted Fielding as telling her that her house was fine, but that he was being forced by others to pressure her.

According to her transcripts, Fielding told Kenny, "Jump in the boat. . . . I can protect you and assist you and help you if you don't put barriers in the way." Kenny testified that he told her: "I'd be more than glad to get Grant (Lawseth) down here to look at your property and say, 'Hey, what can we do?' "

Another time, she testified, Fielding asked her: "So you can't figure out a way to generate some cash?"

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