A former Orange County Superior Court clerk was sentenced Friday to more than 11 years behind bars for orchestrating a scheme in which he was paid about $420,000 in bribes to secretly “fix” criminal cases and traffic offenses for hundreds of defendants.
Jose Lopez Jr., 36, of Anaheim was sentenced to 135 months in federal prison after pleading guilty in March to one count of conspiring to violate the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act — known as RICO, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
U.S. District Judge Josephine L. Staton said from the bench that Lopez created, led and profited from the scheme.
“This was not an aberration from his character — this was his character,” the judge said.
As part of the plea deal, prosecutors agreed not to pursue more than nine years, which is what they argued for Friday, Lopez’s attorney Brian Gurwitz said.
Gurwitz argued for seven years and three months.
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 U.S. 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 an estimated 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, evidence showed.
The conspiracy ended in the spring of 2015 when the court learned about the misconduct and took steps to reopen the cases tampered with by Lopez.
“Because of (Lopez’s) corrupt actions, the Orange County Superior Court audited each and every case that (he) handled,” prosecutors wrote in a sentencing memorandum filed with Santa Ana federal 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 court about $170,000 to clean up.
Staton denied a restitution claim for that amount, Gurwitz said.
Lopez used the money he received to pay for, among other things, international vacations, trips to Las Vegas and the opening of a restaurant in Garden Grove, which has since gone out of business, according to his attorney.
“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.”
Lopez is one of a dozen defendants who have been convicted of participating in the racketeering conspiracy.
Gurwitz said his client was sorry for the harm he did.
“What he wanted to convey throughout this process was his deep remorse for the harm he caused to the Orange County Superior Court and especially the colleagues he hurt through his conduct in this case,” Gurwitz told City News Service.
Lopez was allowed to remain free until he reports to prison on Dec. 27, Gurwitz said.
In a letter to Staton, Lopez blamed his conduct on alcoholism.
“I am ashamed for the crimes that I committed,” Lopez wrote in the April 30 letter. “I felt so proud when the courts hired me. Yet somehow I went off track and lost my way. I am so very sorry.”
Lopez said he is regularly attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings “to control my alcoholism, and I’ve taken other steps to understand and admit my character defects so I can succeed when I’m released from prison.”
Lopez, who was born in Santa Ana, said his parents were “poor” and lacked education when they emigrated here from Mexico. Through hard work they managed to open a restaurant, which later fell into bankruptcy, he said.
He said his father, who was a “heavy drinker,” would share tequila with him when he was 16, which got him into drinking and quitting school, he wrote.
Lopez got a job as a courtroom clerk to help provide for three children he fathered. When he married, his wife had three children, and it was two years after he started working as a clerk that he “crossed the line,” he wrote.
“I wanted to provide for” family, “but I didn’t know how. Then the corruption scheme fell into my lap, unexpectedly.”
According to Lopez, a drinking buddy in court one day recognized Lopez and asked him, “Can you hook me up?”
Lopez said he told his pal, “if he could pay $500, his ticket would go away.”
He added, “I am haunted by this reality. I made a bad decision. I broke the law. I victimized the very system that gave me a chance at stability.”
He said the cash made him feel “empowered,” and that he had the luxury to “splurge” on his wife and kids.
“Fixing tickets became my drug,” he said. “The rush empowered me. It was the high that I never felt before, as if I were more powerful… I was like a junkie, knowing that I should stop, but not knowing how to stop.”
–City News Service