By George Bao Sept. 7, 2016
SANTA ANA, California – A Southern California court clerk is so powerful that he could dismiss criminal cases if he is paid for cash and hundreds of defendants have “benefitted” from him till Wednesday morning when federal authorities arrested 10 defendants involving the scheme.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office announced Wednesday that after a grand jury issued a federal racketeering indictment alleging corruption by a former clerk in the Orange County Superior Court, authorities Wednesday morning arrested 10 defendants on charges stemming from a bribery scheme in which the clerk improperly and illegally resolved cases on terms favorable to hundreds of defendants without the knowledge of prosecutors or judges. Authorities expect to soon have two remaining defendants in custody.
According to the 38-count indictment unsealed Wednesday morning, the court clerk allegedly “fixed” criminal cases in exchange for cash bribes as high as $8,000.
As a result of the scheme detailed in the indictment, hundreds of defendants had charges dismissed, had fees reduced, or avoided mandatory jail time in drunk driving cases after paying bribe money to the clerk or middlemen who took bribes on his behalf.
The man at the center of the scheme – former court clerk Jose Lopez Jr. – is charged with being at the center of a racketeering enterprise that engaged in bribery.
Lopez, a 36-year-old resident of Anaheim, allegedly “resolved” cases by entering information into the court’s computers to make it appear that a defendant had paid required fees or had performed community service.
In some cases, Jose Lopez illegally created records to indicate that a defendant had pleaded guilty to reckless driving and that drunk driving charges had been dismissed – thereby avoiding the consequences of a drunk driving charge.
According to the indictment, in other cases, Jose Lopez illegally entered court records that it made it appear second-time DUI offenders had served mandatory jail time, when they had not.
“The racketeering indictment charges the former court clerk with accepting bribes to falsify court records on the court’s computer system,” said United States Attorney Eileen M. Decker.
“Some of the records indicated that a case had been resolved, when no such action had been approved by any judge of the court, and some records included signatures that appeared to be those of officers of the court, but were in fact forged. This defendant allegedly assumed the roles of judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys to line his pockets in a staggering abuse of his position. Very simply, he compromised the entire justice system in Orange County.”
Lopez is charged with receiving bribes from individuals who had been prosecuted for drunk driving or traffic-related offenses, according to the indictment.
Those who paid the bribes were solicited directly by Lopez or one of a team of recruiters.
Wednesday morning, federal authorities arrested 10 of the defendants, including Jose Lopez.
“Mr. Lopez used his position of trust for personal gain and, in the process, conspired with others to pervert the legal system,” said Deirdre Fike, the Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office.
“Today’s arrest should send a message that fixing tickets and tampering with witnesses is taken seriously by law enforcement and corruption by public officials will result in serious consequences.”
The racketeering indictment alleges a scheme in which Lopez allegedly accepted bribes and illegally resolved criminal cases over a five-year period.
The conspiracy ended in the spring of 2015 when the court learned about the misconduct and took steps to reopen many of the cases.
In addition to the bribes and falsified court records, Jose Lopez also allegedly forged the signatures of prosecutors. Several members of the conspiracy allegedly attempted to persuade witnesses to lie about the scheme if they were questioned by authorities.
The indictment alleges that Lopez improperly resolved more than 1,000 cases, including 69 driving-under-the-influence cases. Lopez allegedly received hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes, and investigators continue to review evidence obtained during the investigation to determine the total amount he received.
According to the indictment, Lopez used bribe money to pay for, among other things, international vacations, trips to Las Vegas, and the opening of a restaurant in Garden Grove.