Sunday, June 20, 2010

Good Lawyers end up as political prisoners?

Prisoner of Conscience: Richard I. Fine

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I wasn't prepared for what I encountered when I met Richard I. Fine for the first time.

Here was a distinguished and brilliant 70-year-old attorney who was disbarred and locked up in the LA County Men's Central Jail downtown 15 months ago without charge, without bail, without the judiciary or the leadership of LA or the civil liberties community rallying to cause.

Fine is an anti-tax crusader who has exposed one scandal after another involving abuses of the public's money by those elected to public office, and saved taxpayers more than $1 billion along the way.

He ran afoul of the law revealing that LA County Superior Court judges were being paid more than $40,000 a year under the table by the Board of Supervisors without reporting these payments on their financial disclosure forms and the potential for a conflict of interest with regard to cases involving the County of Los Angeles.
He filed writ after writ in one county case after another questioning the integrity of judges getting these secret payments and their right to try cases involving their hidden benefactor.

He was proven right and when he was, the legislature with the governor's signature legalized these payments and exonerating the judges for their past illegalities, and the legal fraternity took away his license to practice law because he was making a nuisance of himself.

And then the judges delivered the final blow intended to silence him.

The particular judge was David Yaffe, a jurist well known for his erratic legal rulings and occasional fits of rage in the courtroom.

Yaffe held Fine in contempt of court in March 2009 for refusing to answer detailed questions about his personal finances in a case involving a well-connected developer's highly questionable project in Marina del Rey

Richard I. Fine was led out of court in handcuffs and booked into the county jail where he has been ever since.

I've written and done interviews on the case which has been closely followed by Leslie Dutton's Full Disclosure Network and attracted followers who share the outrage over his jailing. CNN's recent extensive report on Fine's case has given it a higher profile.

It was my first visit to the Men's Central Jail downtown. It gave me the jitters.

The cold indifference of the Twin Towers hit me when I entered the courtyard and scanned for signs of where to go.

I saw two rows of benches against the wall to my left with dozens of people sitting on them, mostly poor or working class, mostly Latinos. The one exception was a nervous white guy in a cheap suit. It turned he was a Brit with an expired passport, probably an illegal immigrant. He was having a hard time getting past the deputies.

I took a seat on the benches and waited for most of an hour until our group was called. Then, I stood in line as three deputies went individually through each visitor's identification and paperwork and sent them to the appropriate line to spend a15 minutes or so chatting with their friend or family member.

It was all impersonal and professional. I was told Fine was in the infirmary which led me around a corner, far from the long lines of men, women and children paying a visit to a loved one locked up on a holiday weekend.

Two-way mirrored windows with a small slot at the bottom surrounded what I assumed was the guards' room. I could hardly hear the deputy's muffled words but handed over my license and then a loud slam allowed the iron-barred gate to open and I went up the elevator to another room with two-way mirrors and eight or so caged glass booths with telephones so visitor and inmate can talk.

Fine knew I was coming and as we talked, we found our lives had cross paths at the University of Chicago when he was a law student and I was an undergrad and in Cleveland when I was a reporter and he was an attorney trying a price-fixing case against GM and Ford. We live just a couple of miles apart in the Valley.

As we talked about his career and his case, he kept emphasizing there's always a humorous side to every story. I watched his eyes and the expressions on his face as he rattled off the details of his, citing the state laws by number that were being violated, reciting with precise memory the language of the legal writs he has filed in an effort to win his freedom.
To no avail, his case has gone through the state courts all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court which set the maximum for coercive detention for contempt of court at five days in the case of LA Times reporter Bill Farr.

Finally, I asked the question I had come to ask: Why didn't he just give in and provide his financial information so he could walk out a free man?

Fine laughed at his predicament. He faces a life sentence unless Judge Yaffe relents or another court intervenes or he faces a life of being hounded financially by the attorneys of the Marina del Rey developer.

Yet, he is in remarkable spirits, a warrior with passion for a cause he believes is more important than his situation. He chooses to stay in jail and fight the injustice of how illegal conduct is being protected while the man who exposed it is feeling the full power of the law to lock up any of us if we stand up too strongly and too well for our beliefs.

As I walked back through the courtyard to my car, I thought about what crimes all the other prisoners were locked up for, of all the friends and family who cared enough to come to visit.

And I thought that Richard I. Fine is a prisoner of conscience who fought the law and the law won, at least so far.

I thought about the outrage of it, how anyone's sense of justice should be aroused that this could be taking place in our city, that a citizen who hasn't committed a crime, only offended the judiciary with his well-documented charges of corruption, should be locked up behind bars for what could amount to a death sentence.

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Supreme Court rules against jailed lawyer Richard Fine

Issuing a final ruling in the case, the U.S. Supreme Court Monday denied Tarzana tax attorney Richard I. Fine's request to be released from Men's Central Jail, where he has been held for failing to divulge information on his personal assets.

Fine, a 70-year-old former taxpayer advocate attorney who claims he's a "political prisoner," has spent 14 months in jail.

A former Beverly Hills attorney who once worked for the U.S. Department of Justice, Fine has been held in solitary confinement since early 2009 after he refused to pay $46,329 or release details of personal finances.

At the time, Fine was handling a case on behalf of Marina del Rey residents and Superior Court Judge David P. Yaffe found him in contempt of court and ordered him held until he divulges the information.

"We are deeply disappointed in the outcome of this," said Victoria Fine, Fine's daughter who is a journalist and editor at The Huffington Post. "It's scary to me that the justice system at all levels doesn't see the inherent flaws in the system and is choosing not to correct them."

In his Supreme Court brief, Fine alleged his confinement is retaliation for exposing Los Angeles County's practice of paying judges an annual bonus of $57,000 in addition to their state salary of $179,000 - providing local judges with salaries higher than the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court who earns $218,000 annually.

Since the county began paying the judges the the extra benefits in the late 1980s, Fine wrote the county has won "virtually all lawsuits" decided by the judges.

An appellate court in San Diego ruled in late 2008 that the payments were unconstitutional, but the state Legislature subsequently passed a bill authorizing the payments and granting retroactive immunity from criminal prosecution for all involved government officials.

In a telephone interview late last week, Fine said if the Supreme Court denied his release that it would mean the "entire judicial system in the United States is lost."

"It means it's acceptable for judges to accept bribes and acceptable for judges to judge their own actions," Fine said.

A Superior Court spokeswoman said the court had no comment on the Supreme Court's ruling.

The high court's ruling came only hours after CNN aired a story about Fine's plight. In a blog entry, CNN Special Investigations Unit reporter Abbie Boudreau noted the "dapper Beverly Hills attorney known for his bow tie" is "not a criminal."

"What will happen if Fine refuses to cooperate, and Judge Yaffe doesn't put an end to this?" Boudreau asked. "Could this go on for another year, or maybe even more? At what point does `coercive confinement' become nothing more than an indefinite jail sentence?"

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"Hanging: it concentrates the mind wonderfully"


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