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O.C. Judges, Officials Rode in Lawyer's Limo : Government: William W. Stewart, who has a contract to defend indigents, says he was not seeking influence.

November 06, 1994|KEVIN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — A local attorney selected by Orange County judges for a lucrative contract to defend indigents accused of crimes has for years provided local judges and other officials a chauffeur-driven limousine to ferry them to fund-raisers, private dinners and sporting events throughout Southern California.

Some judges and the limousine driver said the passengers have included Superior Court Judges Myron S. Brown and Luis Cardenas, and Orange County Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez--some of the same officials who, at times, have helped oversee the county's contract with attorney William W. Stewart over the past 15 years.

Also taking advantage of the limousine service was District Attorney Investigator Rusty Hodges.

All acknowledged being chauffeured around in the limousine, but denied there is anything wrong with what they did.

In some years, the Central Court contract, which was awarded to Stewart without competitive bidding, has been worth nearly $1 million in annual fees for his Santa Ana firm and its associates.

"The word was out: If you wanted the limousine and you had a legitimate reason and if it was available, you could use it," said Cardenas, who recalled using the vehicle one time "a long time ago" to attend a local charity event with Stewart and his wife.

Cardenas later said he could have been a guest in the car on other occasions. He said he remembers being "impressed" that a law firm would have a limousine at its disposal.

He said he was particularly pleased to learn that Stewart's firm would often provide the car service as a "designated driver" for attorneys, judges or others who may have had too much too drink at functions.

"Because of the drunk-driving thing, most of us tried to be careful," said Cardenas, adding that he never had to avail himself of Stewart's post-party service.

Stewart said he maintained a "pretty open policy" with the car, and, on most occasions, accompanied those who used it.

"I'm not trying to buy judges," Stewart said. "There are judges who are friends of mine. I made the car available to a lot of charity events."

The state's Fair Political Practices Commission requires judges and other elected California officials to report gifts valued at $50 or more--including limousine services. The driver, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, said the car charge was $25 per hour and--except for quick one-way trips--events typically ran two hours or more.

Neither Cardenas nor Brown, a passenger in the car on at least three occasions in the past three years, reported any such gifts on their annual disclosure statements since 1987, the earliest year the judges' records were available.

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Both judges have presided over cases in which Stewart's firm represented indigent clients under terms of the county contract. And Brown once chaired the Alternate Defense Committee, which wields considerable influence over indigent defense policy for the county.

Vasquez, one of five members on the County Board of Supervisors, which has routinely granted contract extensions for Stewart's firm on the recommendation of local judges, said he was a guest in the car on two occasions. The supervisor said he paid the driver for one of the rides, a trip to Los Angeles to meet and dine with French government officials two or three years ago.

But the driver, who took Vasquez to Los Angeles, said the supervisor "did not pay me 10 cents" because it was against the firm's policy for the driver to accept money from passengers.

Also about that time, the supervisor said he used the car on a second outing to host the wife of former U.S. Atty. Gen. Richard Thornburgh for a tour of the Orangewood Children's Home.

Vasquez said he did not reimburse Stewart's firm for the limousine on that occasion, but he did not consider the Orangewood outing as a gift because he was "doing county business" by trying to secure more federal funding for Orangewood.

Hodges, a key investigator in the prosecution of former Supervisor Don R. Roth on charges related to the improper acceptance of gifts, said he paid both times he used the car, once "chipping in about $20 or $30" for a trip to the airport three or four years ago, and again about two years ago to shuttle friends to a party for an office colleague.

The driver said he recalled Hodges as a passenger in the car more than twice. However, he also said that the investigator once pushed $100 in his shirt pocket after an office party to cover the group's expenses for the four-hour outing, even though the driver was not supposed to accept payments from passengers.

"I've known all those guys a hundred years," Hodges said. "My deal was I paid the driver."

Meanwhile, Judge Cardenas said he did not consider use of the limousine to be a gift because he recalled using it for only a charity event. "It wasn't like I was getting anything out of it," he said. "At the time, everything was very ethical to me."

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