SANTA ANA, California – A former clerk of the Orange County Superior Court was sentenced Friday to 135 months in federal prison for orchestrating a scheme in which he was paid approximately $420,000 dollars in bribes to “fix” criminal cases and traffic offenses on terms favorable to hundreds of defendants without the knowledge of prosecutors or judges.
Jose Lopez Jr., 36, of Anaheim, was sentenced Friday morning after pleading guilty in March to one count of conspiring to violate the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).
The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced that Lopez was sentenced by United States District Judge Josephine L. Staton, who said Lopez created, led and profited from the scheme.
“This [criminal conduct] was not an aberration from his character – this was his character,” the judge said.
Lopez admitted that he was at the center of a scheme in which bribes as high as $8,000 were paid to co-conspirators to fraudulently resolve cases for hundreds of defendants. The co-conspirators were middlemen who recruited individuals with pending cases to pay money that was given to Lopez to resolve their cases without the authorization of the court.
“People who were facing their second drunk driving offense were able to bribe their way out of mandatory jail sentences,” said Acting United States Attorney Sandra R. Brown. “Mr. Lopez led a long-running scheme that brought him well over $400,000 and caused untold damage to the operations and reputation of the criminal justice system in Orange County.”
According to court documents, Lopez improperly resolved approximately 1,034 cases, including 69 misdemeanor driving under the influence cases, 160 other misdemeanor cases and 805 traffic-related infraction cases.
Over the course of more than five years, Lopez “resolved” cases by entering information into the court’s computers to make it appear that a defendant had pleaded guilty, paid required fees or had performed community service. In some cases, Lopez fraudulently created records that made it appear drunk driving charges had been dismissed or defendants had served mandatory jail time.
In addition to taking the bribes and falsifying court records, Lopez forged the signature of a prosecutor with the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.
The conspiracy ended in the spring of 2015 when the Orange County Superior Court learned about the misconduct and took steps to reopen the cases that Lopez tampered with.
“Because of [Lopez]’s corrupt actions, the Orange County Superior Court audited each and every case that [Lopez] handled,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum filed with the court. “The state court recalled the cases where fraud was found to restore the integrity of its records.” According to a victim impact statement submitted by the Orange County Superior Court, Lopez’s corruption scheme cost the Orange County Superior Court about $170,000 to clean up.
Lopez used the money he received as part of the scheme to pay for, among other things, international vacations, trips to Las Vegas and the opening of a restaurant in Garden Grove.
“Defendant Lopez was entrusted with protecting the interests of justice but instead made a lucrative income operating an underground business for clients seeking a pass on criminal activity,” said Danny Kennedy, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office. “The successful investigation and prosecution of Mr. Lopez and his many co-conspirators is a result of a collaborative effort by multiple agencies and should serve as a warning to public officials who use their access to benefit personally.”
“Mr. Lopez used his public position of trust to enrich himself and undermined public safety,” stated IRS Criminal Investigation’s Acting Special Agent in Charge Aimee Schabilion. “IRS Criminal Investigation will continue to use our financial investigative expertise to combat public corruption and hold officers of the court accountable for their actions.”
Lopez is one of a dozen defendants who have been convicted of participating in the racketeering conspiracy.