With the clock ticking on a deadline to file for judicial elections in 2008, Deputy Dist. Atty. Serena Murillo got a phone call with an unexpected offer.
Murillo was registered to run for seat No. 69 on the Los Angeles County Superior Court bench. The caller told her that her opponent, Court Commissioner Harvey Silberman, would pay her $1,787 filing fee if she dropped out of his race and agreed to run in another.
If Murillo accepted, Silberman would have an uncontested shot at the coveted seat on the bench.
The chain of events that began with that phone call resulted in the rare criminal prosecution this month of a sitting Superior Court judge, whose case was given to the jury this week at the end of a three-week trial. Silberman, 54, stands accused of violating a seldom-invoked elections code making it a felony to pay or solicit money to dissuade someone from running for public office.
The trial offered a glimpse into the little-publicized world of judicial elections, which attorneys on both sides said had become increasingly contentious with the involvement of political consultants who stand to receive a bonus if their clients win, and who sometimes bring a bare-knuckle approach to the races.
In addition to Silberman, who stopped hearing family court cases after he was indicted in mid-2009, the case has drawn in two other bench officers, leading to the resignation of a court commissioner and the subpoenaed testimony of a Beverly Hills judge.
The commissioner, Lori-Ann Jones, testified under immunity that it was she who relayed the message from Silberman and his consultants to Murillo in the February 2008 phone call. Beverly Hills judge Bobbi Tillmon took the stand, after her attorney attempted unsuccessfully to quash a subpoena, and refuted a campaign consultant's testimony that she had authorized a similar scheme to pay off any opponents in a 2006 race.
Silberman was indicted by a grand jury in July 2009 along with his two campaign consultants, Evelyn Jerome Alexander and Alan Randall "Randy" Steinberg. Both pleaded no contest to misdemeanor conspiracy charges and testified against their former client. They face up to a year in county jail.
The consultants were also accused of later telling Murillo, without Silberman's knowledge, that Silberman would drop out of the race if she would pay $83,000 to cover the cost of his ballot statement.
On Thursday, a prosecutor told jurors that Silberman had the motive to authorize the illicit offer because he thought Murillo might beat him. Deputy Atty. Gen. Zee Rodriguez said phone records showing calls from Jones' home phone to Murillo, then to Silberman, then again to Murillo less than two minutes later, prove Silberman had signed off on the offer.
"Rather than following the rules and letting the voters decide ... the defendant and his consultants decided to take the easy way out," Rodriguez said in closing arguments.
Murillo turned down the offer and filed a complaint with the district attorney's Public Integrity Division. Murillo, who was endorsed by The Times, ultimately ran against Silberman and lost, 52% to 48%.
Silberman's attorney, Shepard Kopp, said Alexander and Steinberg devised the plan without the judge's knowledge. The two consultants and Jones had an incentive to lie on the stand, he argued, to ensure they would get a favorable plea deal or avoid prosecution.
"The problem with politicizing judicial elections ... is you get rogues, rogues like Evelyn Alexander and Randy Steinberg, willing to do whatever it takes to win," Kopp said. "Can you imagine a case where there is more 'he said,' 'she said' testimony?"
Kopp also accused prosecutors of "overreaching" and "trying to fit a square peg into a round hole" in prosecuting Silberman for the election code violation. He said the investigation was politically motivated from the start because it was launched by the L.A. County district attorney's office, where Murillo was a prosecutor. The investigation was handed over to the state attorney general's office after several months.
A district attorney spokesman declined to comment Friday, saying it would be inappropriate while the case is pending.
If convicted, Silberman faces a maximum sentence of three years in state prison. A conviction, Rodriguez told the jury, "will mean that even a judge is not above the law."
"You can't violate the public's trust to gain a position of public trust," she said.