SAN DIEGO — In a ruling defense attorneys hailed as a victory, a federal judge Wednesday imposed nearly the lowest possible prison sentences on an attorney and two former Superior Court judges snared in a judicial corruption case.
U.S. District Judge Edward Rafeedie ordered a sentence of two years and nine months for former Judge James Malkus, and three years and five months for former Judge G. Dennis Adams and prominent San Diego attorney Patrick Frega.
Rafeedie rejected a prosecution request for much longer prison terms and allowed the three men to remain free while they appeal their convictions--a process that could take a year or longer.
The three deserved credit for their spotless records, family obligations and lengthy involvement in community and charitable activities, Rafeedie ruled.
The judge said federal prosecutors, in recommending prison sentences of seven to 14 years, were trying to boost the seriousness of the defendants' offenses by arguing that the cozy relationship between Frega and the judges led to "tainted" verdicts in multimillion-dollar civil cases.
Rafeedie noted that during the trial, prosecutors never argued that the judges fixed cases--only that they should not have been hearing Frega's cases or helping him devise legal strategies after secretly accepting $25,000 worth of gifts and favors from him.
The relationship between Frega and the judges "didn't start out as a criminal enterprise, but it escalated into that," Rafeedie said. "It was an attorney trying to ingratiate himself to the court where he appears, and it grew into much more."
Defense attorneys were exultant that Rafeedie, with whom they had clashed repeatedly during the trial, had agreed with their requests for sentences at the low end of the federal sentencing guidelines for mail fraud and racketeering convictions.
"I think the judge--bless him--calls them as he sees them," said Adams' attorney Mario Conte. "He's a courageous judge."
Harold Rosenthal, attorney for Frega, said he was "greatly, greatly relieved that Judge Rafeedie brought a lot of perspective to this proceeding by rejecting the government's contention that this was a well-organized bribery scheme."
Prosecutors expressed no disappointment in the sentences. They instead restated a belief that the case will serve as a deterrent to court scandals.
Acting U.S. Atty. Charles G. LaBella said the sentences "reflect the seriousness of the criminal conduct for which [Malkus, Adams and Frega] were found guilty. It is the government's hope that these sentences will continue to reaffirm the bright line that marks absolute integrity as the foremost obligation of our judges and lawyers. In the end, what is important is that this country's legal system triumphed."
To lower the sentences further, Rafeedie would have had to rule that the defendants accepted responsibility for breaking the law. He refused to make that finding because the three are still protesting that although they may have been guilty of ethical lapses, they did nothing illegal.
Only Adams exercised his right to address the judge before sentencing.
"I'm profoundly sorry for the embarrassment I've caused to the judiciary and legal community," said Adams, his voice breaking. "I have not forgiven myself for my actions, so I cannot ask for forgiveness. . . . The pain is with me every moment."
Rafeedie denied defense requests for a new trial, including one based on a supposed conflict of interest by U.S. Atty. Alan Bersin, who recused himself when the Bank of America, which he once represented as a private attorney, became a party to the corruption case.
Rafeedie also rejected prosecutors' argument that favors the ex-judges granted Frega resulted in "tainted" civil verdicts. But Rafeedie agreed that Frega and the judges had "eroded confidence in the San Diego Superior Court and perhaps beyond that."
Malkus, 59, resigned from the Superior Court bench amid an investigation by the state Commission on Judicial Performance. Adams, 55, was removed by the California Supreme Court.
Frega, 51, once named attorney of the year by his San Diego peers, won a string of multimillion-dollar verdicts against banks, large corporations and an allegedly negligent attorney.
All three defendants have had their licenses to practice law suspended.
The other major player in the scandal that began five years ago, ex-Judge Michael Greer, is set to be sentenced today. In exchange for his testimony, prosecutors agreed not to seek a prison sentence for him.
Greer, 63, has submitted letters to the court from his psychiatrist, cardiologist and family practice physician suggesting that he could not survive a prison sentence and might commit suicide.
During the case, prosecutors portrayed Frega as an ambitious individual who grew up in modest circumstances in New Jersey and moved to San Diego after graduating from a little-known law school in Florida.
Frega quickly began cultivating friendships with judges who were in a position to give him private legal advice and steer his cases to "friendly" courts. Greer, for example, once was presiding judge of the Superior Court and a dominant force on the court for years.
Tall and athletic, Frega was celebrated for his aggressive, intimidating style in court. His reputation as a Marine combat veteran in Vietnam served him well--particularly in San Diego with its heavy military presence.
Federal prosecutors, however, submitted Frega's military records to the judge as proof of his untruthfulness. The records showed that Frega did serve with the Marines in Vietnam, but he did not win a Silver Star for bravery or serve in a reconnaissance unit engaged in dangerous, clandestine missions in Cambodia and Laos as he had boasted.