Thursday, July 8, 2010

LA Gulag! The Political Imprisonment of Richard Fine

The system of judicial checks and balances in California and the rest of the country serves a fundamental purpose. That purpose is to free judges from undue influence of local parties in the jurisdictions to where they reside. Article VI, section 19 of the California Constitution says that only the state can compensate Superior Court judges, judges who are elected through state, not local, ballots. It seems, however, that powerful players in the city and county of Los Angeles have found a way around the California Constitution. For over 20 years the LA County Board of Supervisors have been compensating the 431 Superior Court judges who reside in LA. Is this legal? Not according to Richard Fine and groups like JudicialWatch who are actively exposing the endemic corruption that is taking place in LA.

'It's Chinatown, Jake'

On March 4, 2009 Attorney Richard Fine found himself handcuffed in an LA Superior Court room because he refused to divulge his asset information to the residing judge, David P. Yaffe. This action was the culmination of years of accusations on the part of Richard Fine and years of bullying on the part of several Los Angeles judges. The contempt charge against him stemmed from the kind of case that Richard Fine has taken on for more than ten years, the kind of case pitting taxpayers and homeowners against the County of Los Angeles.

The last case involving Judge Yaffe was Marina Strand Colony II Homeowners Association v. County of Los Angeles, LASC Case No. BS 109420(a.k.a Marina Strand). The case sought to overturn a decision by the County Board of Supervisors that approved of an Environmental Impact Report(EIR) which favored developers trying to develop prime property in Marina Del Rey. During the trial Attorney Fine filed motions to have Judge Yaffe recuse himself on the grounds that Judge Yaffe receives payments from the County Supervisors and therefore is not qualified to judge the case in an impartial manner. During these proceedings Richard Fine was suddenly and ignominiously disbarred from practicing law in the state of California. This disbarment was initiated by Sheldon Sloan. Mr. Sloan was co-council for the developers and at the same time the President of the State Bar, a gross conflict of interest. Attorney Fine was then dismissed from the Marina Strand case. But the onslaught continued. In Fine's absence, Judge Yaffe and the lawyers for the developers acted to impose sanctions and attorney's fees against Fine. Judge Yaffe set a hearing date for January 8, 2008 to hear arguments, a date which Richard Fine was completely unaware of. Of course, Mr. Fine was not present for the hearing and the sanctions were imposed. By March 4, 2009 Richard Fine refused to divulge his asset information so that the court could collect the fees. Judge Yaffe initiated contempt proceedings and in a judicial act so egregious it almost defies comprehension, he appointed lawyers for the developers to prosecute the contempt on behalf of the Superior Court and became a witness in the very proceeding for which he was the judge. During the proceedings the witness, Judge Yaffe, admitted to receiving the payments from the County Supervisors, but Richard Fine still went to jail anyway. He has been there now for over a year, with no charge, no bail and all appeals denied or ignored.

The payments to the judges, which is at the heart of the matter, go back to the late 1980's when Los Angeles County law makers sought to retain 'quality judges'. They did this by compensating LA Superior Court judges with lucrative benefits. The benefits were doled out as such: a MegaFlex benefit plan equal to about 17 to 19% of the judge's salary that could be used for medical, dental or vision insurance. If the judge opted out of the insurance then the county would pay them a taxable amount in cash equal to the MegaFlex plan. Other benefits included something called a PDA (worth up to $6000) and a 401k plan. All of the benefits totaled up to $46,386 on top of their base salary of $178,789. Keep in mind that since the judges are paid through the state that they also enjoy a healthcare plan through the state. The LA benefits plus salary mean that some judges were making as much as $225,175. The Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court makes only $218,000.

There are 431 Superior Court judges in LA county. Their local benefits total over $21 million a year. Since its inception the benefits plan has cost the LA taxpayers over $300 million. And, since property taxes are used to pay the judges in the first place, LA taxpayers are, in essence, paying twice for the same judges. Add to this the fact that the benefit payments are illegal according to the California Constitution Article VI, section 19. Since the late 1980's the payments have continued unabated despite some public efforts to halt such payments. The 1997 Lockyer-Isenberg Trial Court Funding Act declared that "the State was solely responsible for trial court funding, to remove the differences in compensation received by judges in different counties." On the face of it the Act would seem to justify halting the payments to the LA judges, however, in an informal agreement with the judges some State Legislatures allowed their payments to continue as long as the LA judges recognized the legitimacy of the Act. Or in other words, they let them keep their illegal payments as long as they recognized that they were illegal. In Sturgeon v. LA County (LASC Case No. BC351286) JudicialWatch brought a suit to halt the payments and an injunction was granted. But on appeal the Court remanded the case to a decision made by the State Legislature. This decision was an emergency Senate bill SBX2-11 which said that the payments could continue and no legal action could be brought against related parties, i.e. LA County Supervisors.

Richard Fine's focus of contention is that the payments to the LA judges complete a money trail that begins with parties like developers , moves through the LA County Board of Supervisors and ultimately ends with favorable decisions by the paid off judges in most cases. Indeed, Annual Litigation Reports show that in the years 2005 -2007 not one case was unfavorable to LA County when a judge was making the decision.

Richard Fine's crusade is due in large part to what he sees as bribes being paid to the judges in the form of 'employee benefits'. The Marina Strand case is a perfect example of the money trail that leads up to the bribes and the financial consequences this has on LA taxpayers. The Marina Strand case revolves around an EIR that was voted in favor of developers by the LA County Supervisors. Richard Fine contends that two of the Supervisors, Michael Antonovich and Don Knabe, should have been ineligible to vote because they had received campaign contributions within six weeks of the vote. The developers in this case are Del Rey Shores Joint Venture and Del Rey Shores Joint Venture North with representatives Jerry B. Epstein, the Epstein Family Trust, Pat Epstein and David O. Levine contributing the money. It appears that ultimately through their campaign contributions the developers got a victory in court and Richard Fine went to jail.

The amount of money over the years that has gone to private coffers instead of Los Angeles County is staggering. Although over time Richard Fine has recouped over $350 million for homeowners and taxpayers, this pails in comparison to the untold amount of money, probably well over a billion dollars, that has been diverted to private hands via the leasing of public lands. Los Angeles County has been deprived of approximately $910 million just off the rental property of Marina Del Rey alone. In a typical year developers, Del Rey Shores Joint Venture et al., pay to the county about $32 million to lease the public land and rake in over $300 million in rentals and boat slips. Richard Fine has contended that 'fair land use' from this area should net the county at least $100 million a year. Keep in mind that in 2010 Los Angeles County Chief Executive William Fujioka said that LA was going to face a $510 million budget shortfall and the Mayor wasn't far behind barking about closing down public services and cutting wages.

The corruption of LA Superior Court judges is pervasive in other types of cases as well. Since 1984 most states, including California, implemented automatic withholding of child support payments. In a memorandum to the County Board of Supervisors dated October 9, 1998 then District Attorney Gil Garcetti stated that there was at least $18 million in child support payments on 'hold'. Richard Fine represented taxpayer John Silva in Silva v. Garcetti et. LA County (LASC Case No. BC 205645) which sought to release the money to the rightful recipients or be given back to the original payers. Towards the end of the case the County moved to dismiss the case and this was granted by the judge, a judge who receives benefit payments. On appeal California Appellate Justices Boren, Nott and Doi Todd ruled against the plaintiff. In his opening statements of the case Attorney Richard Fine revealed that Justice Doi Todd had been an LA Superior Court judge before going to the Appellate Court and had received benefit payments from the county.

On April 23, 2010 the US Supreme Court held a conference to review an Application for a Stay of Execution in the case of Richard Fine v. LA Sheriff Lee Baca. In this case 'execution' refers to the 'coercive confinement' of Richard Fine by Judge Yaffe. The Supreme Court denied the Application. So Richard Fine, who received a PhD from The London School of Economics and worked for years as an anti-trust lawyer for the US Justice Department, sits in jail with no end in sight. is this the reality of injustice that we have come to? Is the LA Men's Central Jail simpley to be regarded as Richard Fine's new home?

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