SAN DIEGO — In a subdued voice that differed markedly from the one he used as the most powerful judge on the San Diego Superior Court, Michael Greer testified Thursday that he and two other judges took gifts and favors from a flamboyant trial attorney and then secretly helped him win his multimillion-dollar cases.
Greer, 62, once known for his booming voice and commanding manner from the bench, looked pale and drawn as he provided what federal prosecutors hope will be the key evidence against ex-judges G. Dennis Adams and James Malkus and attorney Patrick Frega.
Reaching into the top ranks of the San Diego legal system, which once prided itself on its high sense of ethics, the case of alleged judicial corruption has gripped the legal community here for five years. Lawyers Thursday jockeyed for seats to hear Greer confess to years of providing backdoor assistance to a litigator lionized by his peers as trial attorney of the year.
Greer, who has pleaded guilty in exchange for probation, testified that he assisted Frega in preparing his cases, let Frega select "favorable" judges, and then tricked opposing counsel into thinking that he was an objective jurist.
One trick involved fining Frega $150 for appearing late to court as "a demonstration of neutrality . . . making it look good" before assigning the case to the judge whom Frega had privately requested, Greer testified.
A judge for 17 years before his abrupt resignation in 1993, Greer taught law school, had a statewide reputation as a civil litigation judge and served as presiding judge for several years. In that position, he had great authority to assign cases to other judges and to pressure attorneys to settle cases without a trial.
Greer testified that he used that discretion over a 10-year period to aid Frega in dozens of cases. When Frega represented a car dealer against a lender, Frega called Greer and told him to persuade the lender's attorney that "he'd be better off settling."
"He was a holdout, and I pressured him very heavily," Greer said.
Greer said he and Frega struck up an acquaintance in 1979 that ripened into a mentor-student, uncle-nephew relationship and that ultimately they decided to "take care of each other." The two families socialized frequently, usually at Frega's lavish home in Rancho Santa Fe.
Frega, who grew up poor in New Jersey and became a multimillionaire by representing plaintiffs against banks and big corporations, gave Greer and his family cars, computers, ocean cruise vacations, "VIP treatment" at a car repair shop and weekend getaways, according to documents and Greer's testimony. Prosecutors put the value of Greer's gifts from Frega at about $75,000.
The other judges, Greer testified, were similarly enamored of Frega's largess and willing to do his bidding. The government puts the value of gifts to both Adams and Malkus at about $25,000.
Greer testified that Frega once complained that Adams was demanding more favors and had made a mess in an apartment that Frega rented for him.
When the state Commission on Judicial Performance began probing the cozy relationship between Frega and San Diego judges, Frega told Greer to "dummy up" and destroy incriminating documents, Greer said.
Greer's lawyer, Robert Brewer, has said his client pleaded guilty because his health would not withstand a trial. Greer testified that he takes daily medication for depression, diabetes, a heart condition, sleeplessness, a prostate condition and a sick stomach.
As revealing as Greer's testimony was during five hours of detailed questioning by Assistant U.S. Atty. Phillip Halpern, he provided no indication that Frega asked for a specific favor in exchange for a gift. Nor did Greer say that he made any rulings in Frega's cases that he felt were contrary to law.
In fact, under questioning by Frega's attorney Harold Rosental, Greer said that settling cases out of court was standard practice in San Diego's crowded court system and that the system would collapse if every case went to trial.
Defense lawyers are prepared to argue that even if the conduct of Greer and other judges was unseemly or even unethical, it was not illegal and did not constitute conspiracy or bribery.
In a theory that appears to stretch existing legal definitions, prosecutors say that the judges and Frega were engaged in a kind of racketeering, of running a legal-looking enterprise, in this case, the court system, as a criminal enterprise.