SANTA ANA — A Westminster attorney and two office employees were convicted Thursday on conspiracy and other charges in what authorities have described as one of the state's largest auto insurance fraud schemes.
The scam involved "victims" seeking payouts for injuries they never suffered in auto accidents that never happened.
The trio are among more than 35 people arrested in January, 1993, in connection with four loosely connected fraud rings in Orange and San Diego counties that authorities alleged bilked insurance companies with phony auto accident claims. A fourth defendant, a Santa Ana physician, was acquitted Thursday. Five other people previously were convicted in the case, while the remaining defendants face trial later this year.
Westminster attorney James Michael MacPhee grimaced and shook his head Thursday afternoon as an Orange County Superior Court jury found him guilty of four felony charges: two charges of conspiracy to commit insurance fraud, insurance fraud and attempted grand theft. He was acquitted of one count each of conspiracy and insurance fraud.
MacPhee faces a maximum sentence of more than six years in prison and could lose his license to practice law.
Law office employees Lam Hoang Luu and Phuong Thi Bich Vo also were convicted of one felony count of insurance fraud and conspiracy to commit insurance fraud; Vo was additionally convicted of attempted grand theft. They each could face about five years in prison when sentenced Sept. 23.
"We hope this will send the message to law offices and others involved in fraudulent insurance claims they are no longer safe in those practices," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Kenneth Chinn.
Jurors acquitted a fourth defendant, physician Frank Lowe of Santa Ana, of conspiracy and insurance fraud charges.
The suspects were arrested following an 18-month investigation that targeted attorneys and doctors who officials alleged played critical roles in auto-insurance fraud schemes. Orange County law enforcement officers went undercover and claimed to be accident victims while several auto insurance firms also played along to help seal the arrests, officials said.
Chinn said the insurance companies did not lose any money during the undercover investigation because arrests were made before claims were paid out. But authorities estimate that fraud costs the auto insurance industry between $1.5 billion and $2 billion annually and drives up consumer insurance rates.
Outside of court, defense attorney Jeffrey N. Wilens said he believes MacPhee was "betrayed" by his co-workers, and said MacPhee was not knowingly involved in any fraudulent insurance schemes.
During the six-week trial, MacPhee testified that he took a 30% profit from insurance claims proceeds, while the remaining 70% went to two other employees who ran the law office. Chinn said that while such arrangements are legal, they can encourage dishonest workers to drum up profits by filing false insurance claims.
Attorney Dennis P. O'Connell, who represented Lowe, said he was disturbed that his client even had to go to trial when it was clear from the outset that evidence against him was weak.
Jury foreman Gerry Galleher said Lowe was acquitted because jurors did not believe he was aware of any insurance fraud scam.
"We just didn't believe he had anything to do with all this," Galleher said.
Chinn said he respected the jury's decision but said prosecutors would not have presented the case if they did not believe the doctor had knowledge of the scheme.