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2 Former Judges, Lawyer Convicted in Corruption Case

Courts: Three found guilty of mail fraud, conspiracy to commit racketeering. Attorney had showered San Diego jurists with gifts. They gave him special treatment.

October 19, 1996|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"This case has been on the radar screen of judges across the country," she said. "It will be taught in law schools for 20 years because it is not a case of flagrant bribe-taking but it still involves conduct that is not permissible. It tells judges that it's not OK to come close to the [ethical] line."

The fact the judges took gifts from Frega--car repairs, computers, jobs for their relatives, automobiles and more--and then did not list those gifts on the disclosure forms required of public officials was never in dispute.

The legal issue that had to be decided by the jury was whether the judges and Frega had entered into a conspiracy to act illegally and to violate a federal law designed to crack down on racketeering.

Prosecutors were not required to point out a single instance of a legal favor done in exchange for a gift. Greer, Malkus and Adams all insisted that they never made a ruling in a case involving Frega that was contrary to law.

That defense, however, was severely undercut by the strong-willed Rafeedie, a Los Angeles judge who took the case when all 11 judges on the San Diego federal bench recused themselves because they know the defendants. Rafeedie instructed the jury that it was not a defense that the legal actions rendered by the judges in cases involving Frega were legally sound.

That ruling--and Rafeedie's refusal to delay the trial to give the defense attorneys more time to prepare--could form the basis of appeals. For the trial, Adams and Frega hired attorneys from firms noted for their successful appellate work.

"There may have been ethical lapses but there was absolutely no intent to commit a criminal act, no conspiracy at all," said Harold Rosenthal, one of Frega's attorneys.

Criminal convictions of judges in California are exceedingly rare, so much so that the state judges' association does not even keep a tally. One estimate is that fewer than 10 judges have been convicted in the past three decades.

"When judges go bad, it sends a shock wave through the entire justice system and society as a whole," said Sean Walsh, spokesman for Gov. Pete Wilson, when asked about the convictions. "We're clearly concerned, and we hope the [American Bar Assn.] and law enforcement agencies are being absolutely rigorous in rooting out those few bad judges."

Greer, 62, and Malkus, 59, resigned in 1993 amid an investigation by the state Commission on Judicial Performance. The commission sent scolding letters to a dozen judges who had accepted dinners and golf fees from attorneys. Adams, 55, was ousted in 1995 by the California Supreme Court.

The three judges allowed Frega to pick "friendly" judges for his cases, helped him prepare his motions and bullied opposing counsel into settling before trial, according to testimony at the trial. The value of the gifts Frega bestowed on the jurists and their families was put at about $100,000.

In exchange for his testimony, Greer received a promise from prosecutors that they would recommend probation. Greer was presiding judge of the San Diego County Superior Court for several years and earned statewide acclaim for his "fast-tracking" method of handling civil cases. He disappeared and attempted suicide when his indictment was imminent.

After the federal government began its inquiry two years ago, many in the legal community in San Diego grumbled that the investigation was unnecessary, arguing that the judges had been punished enough by the loss of their positions and reputations.

Robert Walsh, special agent in charge of the FBI office in San Diego, praised his agents for diligent work on what was "at times a very unpopular investigation."

When he testified before the judicial commission, Adams accepted responsibility for having acted improperly and gotten too close to Frega. He made a similar comment as he left court Friday.

"I have nobody to blame but myself," Adams said as he and his wife ran a gantlet of reporters.

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