In a case that exposed corruption at the top of the San Diego legal system, a former judge pleaded guilty Monday to taking $75,000 in bribes from an attorney to provide "favorable treatment and assistance" in more than 40 of the attorney's cases, worth millions of dollars.
In a plea bargain, former Superior Court Judge Michael Greer, 61, who once enjoyed a statewide reputation as a respected jurist, said he believes that two other former judges, James Malkus and G. Dennis Adams, also were receiving bribes from the same attorney, Patrick Frega.
"This is an agonizing day for the individuals and for our community that honored and trusted them and which they so thoroughly betrayed," said U.S. Atty. Alan Bersin, who led the investigation. "Today's events reaffirm the accountability of public servants to the people and the truth."
The guilty plea was made in the Los Angeles court of U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie. All 11 federal judges in San Diego disqualified themselves because they know the former Superior Court judges.
Asked by Rafeedie how he pleaded to the lone count of bribery, Greer said in a strong, clear voice: "I plead guilty, sir." However, Greer's voice frequently turned husky and he leaned against a lectern as the judge went over the plea agreement.
Three times, Greer's attorney, Robert S. Brewer Jr., turned to Greer and whispered, "Are you OK?" Each time, Greer, who has been ill, nodded.
Along with Greer's guilty plea, a San Diego car dealer pleaded guilty to obstructing justice by not providing documents to the state Commission on Judicial Performance about sales and repairs of cars owned by the judges. The dealer said he had done so on the advice of Frega.
The commission in 1991 began probing the relationship between Frega and a dozen judges but quickly focused on Greer, Malkus and Adams. That led to Greer and Malkus taking early retirement and Adams being removed from office by the California Supreme Court.
Car dealer James J. Williams Jr., in his plea bargain, said that Frega, his attorney in a lender-liability case against Security Pacific National Bank, told him to "take care" of Greer, Malkus and Adams.
In all, Frega paid $65,000 to buy and repair cars for the judges and their families, prosecutors said.
Adams, sitting without a jury, awarded Williams $7 million in his lawsuit against Security Pacific. Greer helped coach Williams for his testimony in the case, according to documents that Rafeedie read aloud Monday in court.
No criminal charges have been made against Malkus, Adams or Frega, but their indictments are considered imminent. Through their attorneys, they have insisted that they are innocent.
Dennis Riordan, a San Francisco attorney representing Frega, said that, if indicted, his client plans a vigorous defense. He said he is not surprised that Greer, who has a heart condition and severe diabetes, would plead guilty and provide the kind of information prosecutors were seeking.
Greer disappeared for two days in January before being found in Hemet after an unsuccessful suicide attempt.
"His doctors said, 'If you go to trial, you'll die,' " Riordan said. "He made the right decision for himself and his family. But we still don't think that Judge Greer has done anything corrupt or that Pat did anything corrupt."
Noting that Williams will pay a $500,000 penalty, Riordan said that if federal prosecutors thought the $7-million verdict in Adams' court "was a corrupt verdict" they would have sought to have him forfeit the entire $7 million.
However, for a judge to be convicted of bribery, it need not be proved that his actions caused a verdict to be "fixed," according to legal experts. By taking money or other inducements to do something in a case, a judge can be convicted of bribery even if his actions did not influence the verdict.
The corruption investigation by the federal prosecutors has been the talk of San Diego for months, despite extraordinary attempts by Bersin and by Assistant U.S. Attys. Phillip L.B. Halpern and Charles G. La Bella to keep the investigation confidential.
Some San Diego lawyers have grumbled that federal prosecutors were raking over incidents that might, at worst, show an unacceptably chummy relationship between Frega and the former judges and for which the latter already had been punished with public humiliation and the loss of their judgeships.
The scope of the conduct outlined in Greer's guilty plea seemed to blunt that criticism.
"I'm shocked to the bottom of my shoes at the enormity of the corruption," said longtime San Diego attorney Michael Aguirre, who admits he had been skeptical about the federal probe. "You hear about this in other places but never dream about it in San Diego."
Greer admitted providing a "wide range" of assistance to Frega, who was once named trial attorney of the year by his San Diego peers. Much of his caseload involved representing plaintiffs against insurance companies and manufacturers.