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2 Former San Diego Judges, Lawyer Get Prison Terms

Court: All receive minimum sentences in the gifts-for-favors scandal that shook city's legal system.

June 13, 2000|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two former San Diego judges and a former "lawyer of the year" were sentenced Monday by a federal judge in Los Angeles to minimum prison sentences for their roles in a gifts-for-favors scandal that rocked the San Diego legal system.

The case revealed publicly an old-boy network of unusual coziness among some lawyers and judges.

Former Superior Court Judges James Malkus and G. Dennis Adams and former civil attorney Patrick Frega were ordered by U.S. District Court Judge Edward Rafeedie to begin their sentences July 10. The three have been free while appealing their 1996 convictions.

"I have suffered shame, humiliation and sleepless nights," Malkus told Rafeedie.

"I'm mortified by the embarrassment I have caused the judiciary," Adams said outside the courtroom.

Rafeedie rebuffed a request by federal prosecutors to impose maximum sentences.

Still, the case reaffirmed the controversial principle that it is illegal, not just unethical, for judges to receive gifts from lawyers whose cases they are hearing--even if it cannot be proven that the gifts were in exchange for specific preferential treatment.

Rafeedie sentenced Adams, 58, to 38 months; Malkus, 63, to 30 months; and Frega, 54, to 41 months. In all three cases the sentences were the minimum under federal guidelines.

After the 1996 trial, Rafeedie sentenced Adams and Frega to 41 months and Malkus to 33 months. But the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals voided one count of the conviction against the two judges. The case went back to Rafeedie for resentencing after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal.

A third ex-jurist, former Presiding Judge Michael Greer, escaped a prison sentence only by becoming the star witness for prosecutors. He pleaded guilty and was placed on probation.

Frega, who often represented consumers against large corporations, lavished more than $100,000 in gifts on the three judges from 1983 to 1992. Among them: automobiles, vacations, office equipment, health club memberships and jobs for the judges' children.

The judges coached Frega on how to present his cases, pressured opposing attorneys into reaching out-of-court settlements and assigned his cases to "friendly" judges.

Greer and Malkus resigned in 1993 during an investigation by the Commission on Judicial Performance. Adams was ousted by the California Superior Court in 1995. A dozen other San Diego judges and lawyers received scolding letters from the commission.

San Diego Presiding Court Judge Wayne Peterson, in a telephone interview, said the case has been "a dark cloud" over the San Diego judiciary.

"Members of the judiciary have had to suffer for the sins of these participants for years," he said. "It's very difficult to be on the defensive for actions you did not commit, errors you did not make."

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