Next week, a federal grand jury will start hearing testimony from hundreds of Orange County residents who allegedly paid a former Superior Court clerk to reduce or erase their drunk driving and other traffic violation charges and penalities over the last five years.
It's likely the grand jury will hear many stories like that of Anaid Antunez of Fullerton.
One night in March of last year, she and her aunt went out to dinner. Antunez admits she had too much to drink and caught the attention of a police officer when she drove away from the restaurant without her headlights on.
"I’ve never gotten a ticket in my life and a DUI comes along and I’m like, 'Okay, I want to just get rid of it,'" she says.
So she searched the advertisements on Craigslist for a lawyer or some type of service to handle her case. When Antunez called the number on one ad, a man quoted her $6,000 or $7,000. She told him she couldn't afford that much.
A few days later, the man - Antunez said she never got his name - called her back and offered to "fix" her DUI ticket for less than $1,000. Antunez says she was suspicious, but she arranged to meet the man and promised to bring the money if he brought the paperwork.
"If I would have handed him the money before he brought the paperwork he would have ran off, right? So it was legit," Antunez says. "That’s what I thought."
She says she can't remember how much she ended up paying the man.
When he brought her the paperwork, Antunez submitted it to a court clerk. Her DUI was dismissed in June 2014 and she pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of reckless driving, according to court records. Antunez was told to take a 12-hour alcohol and drug class, which she says she completed.
Antunez says her gut told her this might be too good to be true, but since it was her first DUI, she thought maybe the judge had taken it easy on her.
Now Antunez realizes she was wrong. Along with hundreds of others, she received a letter in May summoning her to Orange County Superior Court to have her case reopened.
Defendants are given the opportunity to settle their case with the judge, or continue their case until they have an opportunity to hire an attorney. Antunez's DUI case will be heard again later this month.
As defendants exit the courtroom, an FBI agent or federal prosecutor catches up with them in the hallway to serve them with subpoenas summoning them to testify before the grand jury.
Criminal defense attorney Mark Devore has a client caught up in the investigation. He says his client was charged with a DUI and paid someone to deal with it. He then received notice that his charges were reduced to a reckless driving charge.
Devore says it’s easy to scold the defendants for trying the skirt the law, but he faults the Orange County district attorney’s office for failing to realize what was going on. The court can’t reduce a DUI charge to reckless driving without the permission of the district attorney's office, he argues.
"Don’t they follow up on their cases?" Devore asks. "Every DUI that got surreptitiously reduced to a reckless, the D.A. had its file out for two, three, four years, and never went back and said, 'Hey, what happened to that case?'"
Court officials said in a statement it appears as if the renegade clerk started fixing cases in 2010. They said they became aware of the problem this past March when another clerk noticed the minutes from a court hearing in one case were wrong. After an audit, court staff found about 1,000 cases with inaccurate minutes, according to the statement.
"This certainly exposes a lot of problems within the court, and the court's lack of security," Devore says.
Court officials haven’t identified the clerk in question or said whether he’s been arrested, although they say he doesn’t work for the court anymore.
Superior Court officials declined to comment for this story, as did the Orange County district attorney's office and the F.B.I.
Anaid Antunez says F.B.I. agents questioned her about the clerk a month ago.
"They’ve been [asking] ... if I remember the name," she says. "To be honest, I never got his information."