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Plea Bargain Riles Scorned Public Defenders

Justice: State attorneys group to seek a tougher sentence for a lawyer who allegedly used a stolen identity to chastise her colleagues in an online chat room.

September 24, 2002|MONTE MORIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Criminal defense lawyers make their living in part by pleading for forgiveness on behalf of their clients. But in the case of Ana Maria Patino, members of the California Public Defender Assn. are crying out for blood.

Patino is a Santa Ana attorney who used the organization's closed Internet chat room to attack other members with a stream of angry missives, association officials say.

After being booted out of the group last year, Patino reemerged surreptitiously, using the online identity of a young law school graduate, prosecutors said. This prompted an investigation by the FBI and local police that resulted in charges of identity theft and forgery.

Prosecutors, however, have agreed to dismiss the charges if Patino apologizes, performs community service and pays $1,500 in fines.

The deal has members of the association crying foul, saying that Patino victimized them and avoided jail time by hiring a well-connected defense lawyer. They say prosecutors are letting her off too easily. They also complain that as the "victims" of the crime, they were never consulted about the plea deal.

"I'm astounded. Clearly the D.A. doesn't care about identity theft," said association board member Don Landis, who is an Orange County deputy public defender. "They're really interested in victims' issues when they want to be tough on some indigent client who pocketed something at Mervyn's, but when it comes to dealing with an Orange County lawyer, it's a different matter. It's hypocritical."

Members of the group--which is open to all defense attorneys--plan to take the unusual step of asking a judge next month to scuttle the plea bargain and demand stiffer punishment for Patino.

Patino, a defense lawyer who specializes in appeals cases involving immigration law, was the chat room's most active participant.

Firing off 10 to 15 critical messages a day on a variety of criminal-defense topics, Patino would sometimes sign her electronic missives as "Xena" or "Lady Anne."

Chat-room users say many lawyers felt the heat of Patino's flames, but the 54-year-old attorney allegedly crossed the line when she picked fights with the leader of the Orange County Bar Assn.

"I really don't know why you would think anyone would care what you think," Patino wrote to then-Orange County Bar President Jennifer Keller.

"You never have ceased to amaze me in your pretentious sense of power which you choose to gloat over people."

Patino also took aim at association director Michael Cantrall, cursing him and vowing to "bring you down and everyone else associated with you."

The defenders group responded by stripping Patino of her chat-room privileges and terminating her membership in the association.

But in June of last year, just weeks after she was bounced from the chat room, Patino reemerged under a false identity, the association said. Using the name and a bar license number of a 28-year-old law school graduate, Patino reportedly resumed her electronic chats as Lianna Figueroa.

The alleged ruse worked for several months, association officials said, until Patino began to complain to the site's Webmaster about service. The Webmaster reportedly recognized Patino's confrontational style and telephoned the real Lianna Figueroa to ask whether she was dissatisfied with the Web site.

"I had no clue what they were talking about," Figueroa said. "I just finished law school. I never applied to them for an account."

Authorities eventually charged Patino with identity theft, forgery and fraud. Patino hired powerhouse Orange County defense lawyer Alan Stokke, who discussed a plea deal with prosecutors.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Susan Riezman said Stokke's political connections played no role in the deal. "This is an appropriate agreement based on the totality of the circumstances, and the non-seriousness of the crime," Riezman said. "The victim suffered no financial loss nor any loss of reputation."

Riezman noted the matter would also be investigated by the State Bar of California.

Patino insists that she has done nothing wrong and is being persecuted by the association. "I am innocent," Patino said. "I do not know anything about Lianna Figueroa. I don't know her and I don't know anything about an apology."

She insists that the public defenders are out to get her. As an appeals lawyer, she said, she regularly exposes the sloppy work of public defenders.

"Their motivation is to get back at me," Patino said. "I make them look bad. They're motivated by envy."

Figueroa, the lawyer whose identity Patino allegedly used, said she has been troubled by the experience. She said prosecutors should hold Patino to a higher standard because she is a lawyer.

"I have no idea what this person was telling people under my name, and I'm worried people will think it's me who said it," Figueroa said.

"Nobody seems to care. I went to the police and they said, 'Big whoop, nobody lost any money.' I want somebody to take this seriously."

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