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Lawyer Says Contract Not Tied to Limo Favors : Government: William W. Stewart, whose firm provides legal assistance to the indigent, insists judges and other officials wouldn't be influenced by the rides, and he denies getting special treatment.

November 08, 1994|KEVIN JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Judicial decisions to repeatedly extend attorney William W. Stewart's lucrative contract to defend poor people accused of Orange County crimes were not influenced by the lawyer's practice of providing limousine travel to some of the same judges and officials who oversaw contract operations, the attorney said.

In a strongly worded defense of the local judiciary Monday, Stewart said the judges and other officials chauffeured to private dinners, fund-raisers and sporting events throughout the area were "beyond reproach" and would never be "influenced by a few rides in a limousine."

"The judiciary in Orange County is clean," Stewart said in an interview following disclosures in The Times that he regularly made his firm's limousine available to judges and other public officials who could influence decisions to renew or cancel a contract that paid him as much as $1 million a year in attorneys' fees.

"You cannot require judges or other officials to cease being my friends just because they are elected to public office. That's ridiculous."

Nevertheless, the co-author of Orange County's new gift-ban ordinance characterized the attorney's limousine service as creating a perception of impropriety at the courthouse.

William R. Mitchell, director of Common Cause in Orange County, said Stewart's 15-year contract alone is enough to question whether Stewart "has a special relationship with the decision makers."

"They (the judges) don't consider the limousine rides gifts, and they don't report them because they don't want people to know about their special friend, Mr. Stewart," Mitchell said. "It unduly taints the decision-making process."

Superior Court Judges Myron S. Brown and Luis A. Cardenas acknowledged last week that they had been guests in the attorney's limousine over the years and did not reimburse the firm nor report the rides as gifts as they are required by the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

Both judges, Stewart's longtime friends, have presided in cases involving Stewart or his law firm, and Brown once served as chairman of the county's Alternate Defense Committee, which makes recommendations on indigent defense policy for the county.

Cardenas said he may have used the car more than once but could only remember traveling to a charity event "a long time ago." Brown said he accompanied Stewart to football games at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum at least three times during the past three years.

Brown has also used Stewart's hotel suite in Las Vegas but also did not report that as a gift as required by the FPPC. Orange County Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez, one of five members of the Board of Supervisors who has routinely cast votes to extend Stewart's contract, said he had used the limousine on at least two occasions.

Once, Vasquez said, he was performing county business and did not believe he was required to reimburse the firm. A second time, Vasquez said, he paid the driver for transportation to attend a dinner in Los Angeles. The driver, however, said he never received any form of payment from the supervisor.

Another passenger, district attorney's investigator Rusty Hodges, said he paid for the service both times he used the car. The driver said the investigator once stuffed $100 in his shirt pocket as payment for one trip, and Hodges said he chipped in about $20 or $30 on another occasion when he was sharing the car with other passengers.

None of the officials believed they did anything wrong by using the limousine, but Mitchell focused much of his criticism on the judges.

"He (Stewart) does not provide favors without expecting something in return," Mitchell said. "The contract he has is a favor in itself," because it is not awarded on the basis of competitive bidding.

Although Stewart prizes his relationships with the judges and other officials, he said he has never won special treatment from them.

"I got the contract and have kept it this long because I have done an excellent job," Stewart said. "I have earned and continue to earn the respect of the judicial system based on merit. That's the way it will continue to be in Orange County."

In the same breath, Stewart said he has become the target of former associates who have been seeking to wrest control of the county business from his firm, which has long represented local indigents.

"I am a very big-hearted person who has taken care of a lot of people in my career. Then some of them turn around and double-cross you."

Earlier this year, Stewart was criticized by other local judges for "subletting" most of his contract caseload to other attorneys while still keeping a substantial portion of the payments for himself.

At the time, the judges accused Stewart of abandoning his role in the courtroom to pursue other business interests in South America. Court officials have confirmed that Stewart sometimes communicated with them by telephone or fax from South America.

"I think the fact that Stewart's firm has the contract sends a message to Orange County," Mitchell said. "You don't need to be a full-time lawyer in Orange County if you are willing to give gifts."

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