Crime & Justice

FBI investigates whether hundreds of OC court cases were illegally fixed

Enrique Degante, 27 of Santa Ana, shows court paper work that summoned him to Orange County Superior Court in Westminster for a traffic-related cases that was supposedly dismissed in 2014. The FBI is investigating whether an O.C. Superior Court clerk illegally fixed thousands of cases starting in 2010 for payment.
Enrique Degante, 27 of Santa Ana, shows court paper work that summoned him to Orange County Superior Court in Westminster for a traffic-related cases that was supposedly dismissed in 2014. The FBI is investigating whether an O.C. Superior Court clerk illegally fixed thousands of cases starting in 2010 for payment.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC

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A federal investigation is underway in Orange County to determine how approximately 1,000 driving-related cases were doctored to look as if defendants had their criminal charges and fines reduced.

In March, an Orange County Superior Court clerk found a case that had inaccurate minutes of a hearing that supposedly took place. She reported the irregularities to her boss and an audit was done, according to O.C. Superior Court officials.

“We became aware of a pattern where it appeared that a large number of cases had irregular minutes, all of which appeared to be entered by a lone employee,” stated a news release from O.C. Superior Court.

The employee, who is no longer working for the county, appears to have changed dispositions in about 1,000 court cases, according to the O.C. Superior Court. Court officials declined a request for an interview, as did the O.C. District Attorney’s office, which has teamed up with federal authorities on the investigation.

For the past two Fridays in a Westminster courtroom, hundreds of confused defendants have been summoned before a judge to have their cases reopened.

Each defendant was given an opportunity to delay their case to a later date and ask for a court appointed attorney.

“I don’t really know what’s going on,” said Enrique Degante, 27, of Santa Ana, one of the defendants who appeared Friday. He chose to continue his case until next month.

Degante got a ticket December 2013 for driving with a suspended license, according to court records. He failed to show up to court for that violation but records show all charges were dismissed on March 4, 2014.

Then last month, Degante received a letter from O.C. Superior Court ordering him back in court for the same cases.

Degante is keeping quiet about how he got into this situation until he finds a lawyer, but others in the courtroom like S. Rivera (she asked not to use her full name) said they met a man who told them they could fix traffic tickets.

Rivera said she paid $1,000 to a man — she doesn’t remember his name — for a ticket she received for driving without a valid license.

“One man said he paid $15,000,” Rivera said after Friday’s court hearing. “I feel bad for him.”

It’s unclear how much money the suspected court record fixer took in exchange for altering court minutes. Many defendants declined to talk to reporters waiting outside court.

Before Degante could leave the courtroom, an FBI agent with subpoena papers was waiting for him in the foyer.

“YOU ARE COMMANDED to appear,” read the federal court papers Degante was given. It also stated that authorities were investigating possible charges under "18. U.S. Code 666 (a) (1) theft or bribery concerning programs receiving federal funds."

One by one, federal investigators followed defendants out of a courtroom in Westminster handing out subpoena orders for a July 29 grand jury hearing.

Degante said he’s trying not to worry about it too much.

“It’s just seems kind of dumb that we’re paying again, and they’re out there and they still have all the money,” he said. “It kind of sucks.”

Criminal defense attorney Mark Devore said his client was charged with a DUI last year and paid someone for the ticket. Devore said he didn’t know how much.  

Devore questioned the checks and balances of the Orange County Superior Court system.

“One person for four years … and nobody knows about it,” he said. “I have a problem with that.”

This story has been updated.