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2 Men Accused of Using Court Data to Cheat County

September 01, 1998|HUGO MARTIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Superior Court auditor and an attorney each face 11-year prison terms on charges that they conspired to use inside court information to bilk Los Angeles County out of $1.5 million.

Gregory S. Pentoney Sr., 30, of Downey, is accused of selling secret county account data to Robert Fenton, 49, of Encino, so that Fenton could collect "bounty fees" for tracking down forgotten trust funds.

Prosecutors also believe that Fenton collected bounty fees for uncovering 10 fictitious trust accounts that Pentoney created through false documents.

"They made a lot of money on this," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Alexander M. Karkanen, who is prosecuting the case.

Pentoney and Fenton were arrested Friday and are expected to be arraigned next week. Each faces a count of grant theft. Pentoney--who was fired from his job as a court auditor in December 1996, when court officials found that they were short more than $1 million--also faces charges of accepting a bribe and eight counts of preparing false documents.

Fenton faces a count of offering a bribe and 10 counts of perjury by declaration.

Fenton's attorney, James Blatt, insists that his client did nothing wrong.

"We are confident that once the truth comes out, we will show that Mr. Fenton did not bribe anyone," Blatt said.

The two men remained in jail Monday in lieu of $500,000 bail.

They are accused of conspiring to recover money kept in "condemnation accounts" that municipalities and development agencies create when municipalities condemn private property for public purposes through eminent-domain laws.

Municipalities are required by state law to deposit the estimated value of the property into the accounts until the eminent-domain process is completed.

The interest generated by the principals is owed to the municipalities. But often, the municipalities forget to collect the interest after the cases are settled many years later. Often, "bounty hunters" find the forgotten money and charge the municipalities a fee for their services.

Prosecutors allege that Fenton worked as a bounty hunter and paid Pentoney $463,000 for inside information about 99 condemnation accounts between December 1995 and November 1996.

During that period, Fenton allegedly uncovered up to $5 million in interest for local municipalities and earned up to $1.5 million in bounty fees.

In addition, prosecutors claim that Fenton helped Pentoney submit false documentation with county officials to suggest that the county owed Irwindale $1.5 million in interest from 10 condemnation accounts.

In reality, the accounts did not exist. Irwindale had created 10 condemnation accounts with the state but had already collected the interest on the accounts.

The county paid Irwindale $1.5 million in interest and Fenton collected a fee of 30% to 50% for finding it, according to prosecutors.

"That is direct theft right out of the taxpayers' pocket," Karkanen said.

But Fenton attorney Blatt said the false Irwindale accounts were the result of mistakes; he insisted that all the money had been returned.

He added that Fenton and Pentoney expect to plead not guilty at the arraignment Sept. 9.

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