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Judge Finds No Wrong in Limo Rides : Government: He reviewed conduct of two colleagues following reports that attorney who has contract with the county provided the service.


SANTA ANA — Following a two-day review, Presiding Superior Court Judge James L. Smith said he found nothing wrong with his colleagues' free use of a limousine service provided by a local attorney and failure to report the travel as gifts.

Smith said Thursday that he based his conclusions on documents supplied by the attorney, William W. Stewart, whose law firm has long held the courthouse contract to provide legal defense of poor people accused of crimes.

"I'm trying to rationalize their behavior in all this," Smith said of fellow judges Myron S. Brown and Luis A. Cardenas.

"I'm not trying to nail anybody to the wall. But neither am I trying to cover anything up. . . . After all, they were all very close friends (of Stewart)"

The presiding judge began a review of the judges' conduct after it was disclosed that Brown, Cardenas and other Orange County public officials had used Stewart's limousine for travel to private dinners, fund-raisers and sporting events.

During the 15 years that Stewart has held the indigent defense contract, both judges have been in positions to influence the renewal or cancellation of the agreement, which has been valued at up to $1 million per year.

For a time, Brown served as chairman of the county's Alternate Defense Committee, which makes recommendations on indigent defense policy for the county. The judge said that in addition to taking advantage of the limousine service Stewart provided, he also accepted use of Stewart's Las Vegas hotel suite near the end of his tenure on the committee, and did not report that as a gift as required by the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

According to the FPPC, judges and other elected officials are required to report gifts valued at $50 or more, including limousine rides. The car cost $25 per hour to operate, and events typically ran more than two hours, the limousine driver said.

In his review of Stewart's records, Smith said the judges typically traveled in the car with other passengers, and based on a prorated breakdown of expenses, the costs fell short of the reporting threshold. Smith also said Stewart indicated that the car cost $20 per hour to operate.

"I don't think it was even close," Smith said in reference to the FPPC's annual reporting threshold. "But I know nothing about the (hotel) suite in Las Vegas."

FPPC spokeswoman Linda Dougherty said the agency has never addressed the question of whether officials could prorate the costs of limousine expenses when traveling with other people.

"Hopefully, they will ask us about it," Dougherty said.

Both Brown and Cardenas have said they did not consider the limousine trips to be gifts since they were personal friends of Stewart.

Cardenas said he might have used the car more than once, but could only remember traveling to a charity event. Brown said he had used the car at least three times in the last three years to attend football games with Stewart at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

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