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Will Trial-Lawyer Cash Corrupt Our Courts?

[originally appeared in Investor’s Business Daily, November 14, 1996]

Drug money isn’t the only threat to the honesty of our judiciary, as the recent convictions of three San Diego judges and a prominent trial lawyer make clear.

On Oct. 18, a San Diego jury convicted plaintiff’s attorney Patrick Frega and former California Superior Court judges James Malkus and G. Dennis Adams of racketeering, conspiracy and mail fraud. Former presiding Superior Court judge Michael Greer had already pleaded guilty to bribery based on his dealings with Frega. Appeals are likely after sentencing in January. All three judges are off the bench.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: Losing one local judge in a corruption scandal is a misfortune. Losing two looks rather like carelessness. Losing three suggests a pattern.

The pattern here, contrary to some early reports, is not that prosecutors have launched a puritanical crackdown on everyday socializing, the occasional lunch or Christmas sweater. Greer admitted taking $75,000 in Frega gifts. Favors to the other judges mounted far past $10,000 each. That included thousands Frega slipped to a former client so he could put Malkus’s son on his payroll.

Known for a string of million-dollar victories, Frega had been named Trial Attorney of the Year by his peers. He had an intimidating tough-guy style out of Central Casting, complete with samurai sword and nunchukas on his office wall and a fondness for fancy cars, parties, and publicity.

Part of his flamboyance, suggested his lawyer during the five-week trial, took the form of “nutty acts of generosity -- things that you or I might not do but Mr. Frega does.”

The “nutty acts” included shelling out $12,000 to help Judge Greer get a Mercedes, and $6,000 each toward cars for family members of Judges Adams and Malkus.

Frega had jolted the banking world in the pioneering 1986 lender-liability case of Williams v. Security Pacific. Judge Adams handed his client, car dealer Jim Williams, an award that mounted to $7.5 million by the time it was paid in 1990.

And who should turn up before long as a shopper at Williams’ Rancho Jeep-Eagle dealership? Why, Judge Adams. As the judge later explained: “I felt that he would give me a fair deal.”

Did he ever. The dealership’s bookkeeper said Frega kept a special charge account to cover car purchases, repairs and loaners for the three judges’ families. His automotive outlays mounted to what prosecutors said was an eventual $65,000. (Williams eventually cooperated with authorities and pleaded guilty to obstructing justice).

A key to Frega’s success was getting cases sent to his favorite jurists. (Judge Greer was in charge of San Diego case assignment; the county has since moved to a random system.) The judges then twisted arms in conferences to get opponents to settle cases favorably before trial. Frega concocted scripts” for this, and even told the judges to feign anger with him. He also hid his involvement in some cases.

At least one unwitting opponent, Bank of America, gladly accepted Frega’s proposal to dispense with jury uncertainties in favor of a bench trial. Oops: Judge Malkus, once named “Trial Judge of the Year” by the San Diego Trial Lawyers Association, bestowed a tentative $4 million award including $750,000 in punitive damages. (The bank managed to get a new trial after it sniffed out Malkus’s ties to Frega.)

A bailiff testified that Frega was given a special circuitous route along back halls to Malkus chambers so opposing lawyers wouldn’t run into him.

Even San Diego’s most famous lawyer, class-actioneer William Lerach, secretly brought in Frega to handle a case. “Greer presided over five hearings and assigned the lawsuit to Malkus,” reported the San Diego Union-Tribune, whose superb coverage helped break the scandal. “The case was settled for $2 million after settlement conferences before Adams”.

Lerach was not charged with any wrongdoing. But his four hours spent on the stand helped reveal some embarrassing facts: Frega had arranged for Judge Adams’ daughter to get a job at Lerach’s firm, Milberg Weiss Bershad Hynes & Lerach. She was working there when Adams got picked as the settlement judge for Lerach’s case.

Should we consider this a one-of-a-kind scandal? While careful to cover some tracks, the conspirators were careless in other respects. Frega let bystanders see him requesting particular judges and picking up car repair tabs, which meant prosecutors could call a parade of damning eyewitnesses. Had all been more circumspect, the scheme might continue today.

Pat always came on like he had control of the judges, like he was a Miami lawyer or something,” said a former colleague. (Miamians, please note what this comment implies about your back yard.)

Though editorialists complain about “clubby” courthouses, the problem here wasn’t undue peer pressure or politeness. “Pat has always been very un-San Diego,” one attorney told the Los Angeles Times. “This is a town where opposing counsel are friendly. Pat would not shake your hand. He preferred to go for your jugular.”

Politically active in trial-lawyer causes, Frega favored combative denunciations of the banks, businesses and doctors he sued. To get justice, “you have to use commando-type tactics,” he told one reporter. “We go to war for our clients.” Perhaps such rhetoric helped convince him he was entitled to use any means necessary.

Even after his conviction he appeared utterly unrepentant, telling reporters as he left the courtroom: I’m proud of what I’ve done for my clients.”

That remark deserves to be chiseled on a stone monument to remind every court reformer and honest judge how shamelessly abusive parts of our legal system are getting to be.