Insight has more details on an alleged slush fund for the L.A. Superior Court Judges Association and the possible extortion of civil litigants by some officers of the court.
As the old Neil Diamond song has it, "L.A.'s fine, the sun shines most the time and the feeling is laid back." Sunny L.A. is so laid back that alleged corruption within the Superior Court of Los Angeles goes unchecked and nary a thought is given to investigate possible connections of ongoing criminal indictments to schemes and players already exposed (see "Is Justice for Sale in L.A.?" May 3).
But Marvin Bryer of La Crescenta, Calif., is anything but laid back. A retired computer analyst, Bryer spent years collecting court and bank documents concerning suspicious financial relationships between attorneys, court professionals and judges of the Superior Court. After Insight exposed the secret "coffee-and-flowers" bank account of the Los Angeles Superior Court Judges Association, or LASCJA, Bryer filed a lawsuit against the Family Court Services Special Fund, one of the names used by the LASCJA.
Bryer contends in his lawsuit that, among other things, the LASCJA was using a "bogus" name to mute money to its own bank account gained from minimum continuing legal education, or MCLE, classes and other lawyer-supported ventures associated with the Superior Court. Because the LASCJA illegally was using the County of Los Angeles employer identification number, or EIN, it still is unclear whether the money deposited into the judges' account belonged to the taxpayers of Los Angeles or to the judges -- a question Bryer hopes to have answered by his lawsuit.
Bryer's lawsuit also names Alf Schonbach, manager of the Finance, Accounting and Internal Audits Section of the Superior Court, in an attempt to determine why Schonbach's statements to Insight that the funds collected from lawyers for the MCLE classes and deposited into the LASCJA account contradict his previous declarations that they came from "donations."
"I want the truth about the accounts," says Bryer, "and the money illegally collected by the judges' association returned to the taxpayers of the County of Los Angeles."
Bryer thinks he sees an intricate financial connection in ongoing criminal cases he believes may be related to his investigation into the LASCJA and the county personnel who handled the judges' bank accounts.
For instance, Bryer has included in his lawsuit Gregory Pentoney, an auditor in the Los Angeles Superior Court finance office. A subordinate to Schonbach, Pentoney was arrested in August 1998 on multiple counts, including grand theft, receiving and offering a bribe and preparing false documentary evidence. Pentoney, along with Encino attorney Robert Fenton, is accused of participating in stealing more than $1.4 million from the Los Angeles County by recovering money that the county owed to various municipalities and kept it in condemnation trust accounts.
Condemnation funds are monies deposited into trust accounts that are equal to what is offered by the municipality for property condemned under eminent domain. Pentoney is accused of providing a list of condemnation cases to Fenton, who then submitted requests for disbursements of more than $5 million from the trust accounts on behalf of various municipalities. Fenton allegedly collected $1.4 million in finder's fees from the municipalities and kicked back $463,000 to Pentoney.
At the time Pentoney allegedly was working with Fenton to convert money from the condemnation funds, he also was sparring with Bryer over the LASCJA's bank account. In response to a 1996 lawsuit filed by Bryer, Pentoney claimed in a deposition that while in the finance office he had no knowledge of the Family Court Services Special Fund, which now is known to be one of the names used by the LASCJA for its accounts. Perhaps, but Pentoney's legal representation was provided not by his employer, the County of Los Angeles, but by Robert Traver of Collins, Collins, Muir & Traver in Pasadena -- the law firm that represents the judges. Bryer suspects a cover-up.
Today, Pentoney is being sued in a civil action in the Van Nuys Superior Court and criminally charged in Los Angeles Superior Court for his alleged participation in the condemnation trust-fund scheme. Also, as a defendant in the civil lawsuit filed by Bryer concerning checks processed by the finance office for the Family Court Services Special Fund, Pentoney is being represented by Michael Bergfeld -- another attorney with Collins, Collins Muir & Traver.
Bergfeld says in court documents that he was hired by the County of Los Angeles to represent Pentoney. "This is weird," says Bryer, "because this guy is being both represented and prosecuted by Los Angeles County. How can this be?" Pentoney's supervisor tells Insight he, too, is receiving similar assistance from the county through Collins, Collins, Muir & Traver. Schonbach also is a defendant in Bryer's lawsuit and is a witness in Pentoney's criminal case.
Although some see representation of Pentoney and Schonbach by the judges' law firm as a conflict of interest, Superior Court Presiding Judge Victor Chavez doesn't have a problem with it. "If he was working for the judges' association at the time I don't see a problem. I don't see an ethical issue," says Chavez. In fact, Schonbach was working for the judges' association -- but he was being paid by the County of Los Angeles.