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State Bar of California won't discipline attorney in fraud

An L.A. County judge had referred Juan Dominguez, a personal injury lawyer, to the bar after he was found to have been central to a scheme to have fake plaintiffs lie about becoming sterile from pesticide exposure while working at Dole-affiliated banana farms in Nicaragua.

March 24, 2011|By Victoria Kim, Los Angeles Times

The State Bar of California has declined to discipline a Los Angeles attorney who was accused of orchestrating a massive fraud in representing Nicaraguan banana workers in lawsuits against U.S. corporations, according to a document reviewed by The Times.

Then-Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Victoria G. Chaney had referred attorney Juan Dominguez, a personal injury lawyer whose ads are ubiquitous on Los Angeles buses, to the state bar after she made findings that he was central in a scheme to recruit fake plaintiffs, coach them to lie about working on Dole-affiliated banana farms, and fabricate medical evidence. The plaintiffs alleged that a pesticide used on the farms in the 1970s had made them sterile.

In her rulings, Chaney called the alleged scheme "heinous" and said it was "cemented together by human greed and avarice." The findings by Chaney, who is now an appellate court justice, led to the dismissal of several suits. A 2007 jury verdict awarding six men $3.2 million was also thrown out as a result of the findings of fraud.

Chaney's decisions were largely based on more than two dozen witnesses whose identities were kept secret because of what she said were grave threats to their safety.

In a letter addressed to Dominguez's attorney dated March 1, a state bar investigator wrote that the agency was closing its investigation on alleged professional misconduct.

"This matter does not warrant further action," the investigator stated, according to a copy of the letter provided to The Times by Dominguez. A state bar spokeswoman said she could not comment on the letter because investigations are confidential unless disciplinary action is taken.

Dominguez said Wednesday he felt he was "unjustly framed."

"Our system of justice is severely undermined when attorneys and their clients are unjustly attacked with bizarre allegations from anonymous witnesses," he said in a statement.

Dole attorney Scott Edelman, however, said the state bar's decision was not an exoneration of Dominguez, pointing to a passage in Chaney's legal conclusions in which she found Dominguez had "designed, executed and funded a fraud upon the court" and "tampered with witnesses directly."

Cuban-born Dominguez became a prominent figure in Chinandega, Nicaragua, where he led rallies and appeared on radio broadcasts talking about lawsuits against Dole. He was featured in a 2007 documentary by a Swedish filmmaker on the workers' cases.

Chaney has also indicated she would ask the U.S. attorney's office to investigate. A spokesman for the office did not return a call Wednesday afternoon.

victoria.kim@latimes.com

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