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O.C. bail bondsmen admit steering clients to attorney

February 10, 2007|David Reyes | Times Staff Writer

Two Santa Ana bail bondsmen pleaded guilty Friday to steering jail inmates to a prominent and well-connected criminal defense lawyer -- a practice known as attorney capping.

The bail agents, owners of Xtreme Bail Bonds, admitted acting as runners for Joseph G. Cavallo, the defense attorney for the son of Orange County's former assistant sheriff in a gang rape case.

Jorge Andres Castro, 31, of Aliso Viejo, and Alejandro de Jesus Cruz, 34, now of Miami, pleaded guilty to two felony counts. As part of an agreement, they each face four months in jail, three years' probation and a $9,000 fine at sentencing on Sept. 7, said Senior Deputy. Dist. Atty. Ebrahim Baytieh.

Cavallo, once a part of Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona's inner circle, has also been charged in the case. He has pleaded not guilty to felony conspiracy charges and is scheduled to go to trial in July.

Cavallo's attorney has maintained that the case against his client was political retaliation for representing people who had become enemies of the sheriff.

Under the scheme, the two bondsmen solicited business for Cavallo at County Jail facilities by telling inmates to hire Cavallo, identified as "a friend of Xtreme." They told clients the attorney would give them a discounted rate, Baytieh said.

It was not immediately known how much Castro and Cruz were allegedly paid by Cavallo, Baytieh said. However, Cavallo transferred $50,000 to Castro and claimed it "was an interest-free loan," the prosecutor said.

He said the guilty pleas were not part of an agreement for them to testify against Cavallo. But he said that perhaps they would testify against him. Unlike other businesses, bail bond firms are prohibited from recommending an attorney to a client, Baytieh said.

But Cruz and Castro had Cavallo's business cards at their office, required employees to refer clients to Cavallo and told employees they would get a bonus for the referrals, Baytieh said.

Sometimes, the two bondsmen would make appointments for their clients to visit Cavallo and, in other cases, they drove to his law office and directed bail bond clients to follow them, he said.

Attorneys, as officers of the court, are held to a higher standard, and potential clients have a right to find the best counsel possible -- not the most easily referred, said Jean Rosenbluth, a law professor at USC Gould School of Law.

One case winding its way through the federal court system, she said, was against the New York law firm Milberg Weiss Bershad & Schulman, alleging they paid millions in kickbacks to clients who agreed to be plaintiffs in class-action lawsuits the firm filed.

The firm and attorneys have pleaded not guilty. As in the Orange County case, Rosenbluth said the heart of the allegations against them was the issue of referral fees.

"This [Orange County] case is that one, but on a much smaller scale," she said, adding, there are "all sorts" of ethical obligations governing attorneys and how they get clients.

Baytieh said the law helps protect the consumer and the community from unscrupulous secret dealings. It was written to protect those arrested at their most vulnerable time by not allowing bail bond agents to have influence over the choice of a lawyer, he said.

Cavallo's attorney, John D. Barnett, could not be reached for comment.

Barnett has previously said he found it curious that his client was indicted after representing Gregory Haidl, the son of a former assistant sheriff, and then defending George Jaramillo, another assistant sheriff who was fired and later charged with bribery.

Jaramillo pleaded no contest last month to one felony count each of perjury and misuse of public funds in exchange for having nine other charges dropped, including four bribery counts.

Cavallo, a former Carona political supporter, has filed a legal claim against the sheriff, accusing him of bullying and threatening him for representing Jaramillo.

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