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Disorder Blamed for Judge's Tales

Hearing: Jurist's attorneys say his condition pushes him to embellish his educational and military achievements.

February 22, 2001|RICHARD WINTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Attorneys for a Superior Court judge accused of telling tales about his academic and military achievements told a discipline panel Tuesday that he suffers from a compulsive disorder that leads him to enhance his credentials.

Even as his lawyers attributed his problems to a psychological condition stemming from his childhood in war-torn Java, Judge Patrick Couwenberg took the witness stand in a hearing and shared stories about how he allegedly participated in convert operations in Southeast Asia with a secret agency that could have been the CIA.

Couwenberg testified that he was recruited by a man called Jack Smith, and went twice to Laos in 1968 and 1969 via Thailand to supply covert operations, taking time off from being a county social worker.

"I went to Vietnam on one of those trips," he told a three-judge panel, which will recommend whether to censure or reprimand him or remove him from the bench.

As he testified in the grand, ornate building housing the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena, more than a few members of the audience cracked smiles as he talked about his secret mission. Couwenberg admitted to many lies Wednesday but insisted his war stories were true.

But attorneys for the state Commission on Judicial Performance allege the stories of covert operations are among many falsehoods the judge has woven over the years. Among his other alleged fabrications: He is a Purple Heart-decorated Vietnam veteran with a shrapnel injury in the groin. He attended Caltech and Loyola Law School and has a master's degree in psychology from Cal State Los Angeles.

Couwenberg acknowledged Tuesday he did not go to Caltech, Cal State L.A. or Loyola Law School or serve in the Army. In fact, he said, he was in the U.S. Navy reserves, attended Chaffey Junior College, Cal Poly Pomona and La Verne College of Law.

The commission alleges that he provided false information on his judicial application, misrepresented his background to other judges involved in his selection to the bench and falsely testified under oath to his background. These actions, it alleges, violate the judicial code of conduct. The hearing could continue into next week.

Couwenberg insists inaccuracies on his judicial application, such as the references to Loyola and the master's degree, were the result of his wife's typing the application because he lied to her about his background two decades earlier.

And when another judge asked before Couwenberg's enrobing ceremony if it were true he had served in Vietnam and won a Purple Heart, Couwenberg said yes. But Couwenberg testified that he had agreed only because he thought the judge was joking and that the ceremony was something like "a roast."

On another occasion, he said he "possibly" could have told an attorney falsely that he had a master's degree in psychology and had worked at the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher.

He testified that in January 2000 under he did volunteer under oath false testimony to commission lawyers about attending Cal State Los Angeles and receiving a master's degree there. "Why is this not perjury?" asked Jack Coyle, a commission attorney.

"In the true sense it is," replied Couwenberg, a former prosecutor, who currently sits on the bench in Norwalk.

Edward P. George Jr., Couwenberg's attorney, during open statements before the three-judge panel, however, said his client had never intended to mislead anyone about his background.

George said he plans to put on expert witnesses who will testify that the judge suffers from "pseudologica fantastica," a condition that leads to "a matrix of fact and fiction." Sufferers, George said, are compelled to tell stories to enhance their self-esteem but do it with no intention of ill will. The condition is treatable by therapy, and Couwenberg would be competent to continue as a judge, George said.

"It's directly traceable to his early childhood," said George, who insists his client is a judge's judge.

The lawyer told the panel that Couwenberg was born in Java in 1945 and that when ultra-nationalists took over the country, he was "removed to a series of camps, run by the military, very much like concentration camps."

His family moved to the Netherlands, but then returned to Indonesia before moving to the United States where his father, a lawyer, was forced to become a janitor, George said. "He didn't speak until he was five," George said. "He saw people shot and lying in the streets."

Commission attorneys, however, say Couwenberg lied to cover up his educational inadequacies. The commission noted that there is a three-year discrepancy in the years that the judge gave for attendance at La Verne College of Law.

On his judicial application in 1996, Couwenberg stated that he graduated from law school in 1976. He testified Wednesday he graduated in 1973 but passed the bar examination in 1976, on his sixth attempt.

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