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In July on KOCE's Real Orange, Superior Court judge candidate John Adams exuded all the confidence of a frontrunner sure he'd replace accused child molester Ronald Kline on the bench. Wearing a natty dark-gray suit punctuated with a black- and yellow-dotted tie, Adams smiled easily and occasionally chuckled when tossed softball questions: Had he always wanted to be a judge? "Absolutely." What was the secret to grabbing the most votes in the March write-in campaign? "Good, old-fashioned politicking." What are the odds of defeating current run-off opponent and former county prosecutor Gay Sandoval? "Very good." What would be the key to his victory? "My qualifications."
That night, Adams had all the answers. But this is Orange County, and its politics are rarely simple. In the three months since the KOCE broadcast, the 50-year-old Dana Point resident has retreated into seclusion in the midst of a heated campaign for the powerful public office. Questions about his campaign, background and qualifications are met with silence. Questions about why he would falsely claim to have been president of a company. Questions about why he claims to have been an attorney for more than 20 years even though records show he was licensed to practice less than 14 years.
But Adams won't talk. For a man who believes in good, old-fashioned politicking, his current view of media coverage seems absolutely postmodern. Adams wouldn't answer his home telephone or his cell phone or respond to repeated fax requests to be interviewed for this story. Although he fancies himself "a respected attorney for over 20 years" and "community and civic leader," Adams' most notable experience has been running—unsuccessfully if state records are any indication—Santa Ana and Costa Mesa car-muffler shops.
But Adams would probably prefer people didn't know much about that—or him for that matter. So it may be best to rely on people who've had to get to know him, whether they liked it or not. People like Steven P. Semingson, who Adams used to work for. Asked if he'd be voting for his former employee, Semingson said, "Let's just say I'm a strong supporter of Gay Sandoval."
Orange County has several outstanding judges, but its modern judicial history is scarred with embarrassment.There have been the erroneous murder and robbery convictions in which prosecutors, judges and juries have been too quick to convict innocent suspects. District Attorney Tony Rackauckas' ethics have routinely been called into question with each new revelation that he's aided campaign contributors or punished perceived political enemies. Judges here have been accused of DUI, condoning illegal discrimination in their courtrooms, taking bribes from defense lawyers, and simply falling asleep and snoring during trials.
And then there is Kline, who, authorities allege, molested boys and kept a kiddie-porn collection on his computer. Despite criminal charges that landed him under house arrest in Irvine, Kline was sailing to re-election until an outraged Sandoval began her effort to remove him from the ballot. Though she wasn't successful, Sandoval's protest eventually provoked a massive, 11-candidate write-in vote campaign for the nonpartisan seat last March.
Adams—who had critical Republican Party resources at his disposal—narrowly defeated Kline. Sandoval finished third. Because neither Adams nor Kline received at least 50 percent of the vote, a run-off between Kline and Adams was set for November. Facing his criminal case, Kline asked that his name be removed from the ballot, a move every candidate including Adams had claimed they wanted from the start.
"My first priority is to see that Kline is removed from office," Adams told reporters at the time. "The public trust is sacred."
But sacred ideals were fleeting for the Stanford Law School graduate. The chance to face the unelectable Kline in November was too tempting for Adams. He lost his early calm and flip-flopped, demanding that a judge block both Kline's exit and Sandoval's entry into the November election. The court was not amused by the self-serving ploy to rob the voters of a choice and ruled against Adams.
It's now obvious why Adams wanted no competition—and likely no serious media scrutiny—on his way to a six-year term on the bench at $132,000 per year. Though he has declared that his "goal is to restore integrity and honor" to the court, his personal résumé is a combustible mixture of wishful thinking, glaring omissions and apparent distortions. Then again, to suggest Adams has just one résumé would be incorrect. He has handed out at least three different, contradictory résumés since February.
Early on, Adams routinely asserted that one of his key qualifications over Sandoval is that he has had an "extensive and distinguished" career as a business executive. This, he says, gives him "real world" experience that will allow him to be "mature, thoughtful and even-tempered" on the bench. The executive job he repeatedly highlights for voters is that of "president" of Remote Sensing Technologies Inc., an automobile-emissions testing firm, from 1997 to 1999. However, the company's official Securities and Exchange Commission reports show that another man, Terrence P. McKenna, served as president of the business during the period Adams claims he was boss.
A spokesperson at Remote Sensing Technologies said Adams had not been president of the company. When asked if she was positive, she replied, "I can promise you that nobody named John Adams was president of this company."
University of California at Riverside research director Joe Norbeck worked intensely with the company in 1997 on remote-sensing technology but had never heard of Adams. "I don't recall that name," he said. "If he was involved at all, he was not a major player."
Adams claimed his Remote Sensing Technologies company was based in Arizona, but the Arizona Secretary of State's office—where owners must list corporations doing business in the state—showed no record of Adams being president of any company.
A federal EPA official contacted by the Weeklyrecalled that Adams was employed by Remote Sensing Technologies, but he could not recall his title.
Other key problems with Adams' résumés include:
•Describing himself as a "civic and community leader" in Dana Point, though several Dana Point residents involved in Republican politics and the city's most heated debates say they had never heard of Adams before he ran for judge. Longtime city activist June Golumbic said, "He's a mystery to me and my friends."
•He has claimed he has been "a respected attorney" with "over 20 years' experience." But according to the State Bar of California, Adams has been licensed to practice off and on for less than 14 years. Adams has declined to explain the six-year discrepancy. In his first campaign résumé issued in February, he reported his occupation from 1980 to 1994 as a practicing attorney at law. However, the state bar records show he was prohibited from practicing law for eight of those 14 years, 1982 to 1990, because his license was suspended.
•In July, Adams amended his résumé and claimed he was an attorney only from 1980 to 1982 and 1990 forward and admitted that from 1982 to 1990, he owned a muffler shop called AutoTech. But apparently, "muffler-shop owner" didn't sound impressive enough, so in August, Adams changed his 1982 to 1990 occupation. This time, he listed himself as a "business executive" who "developed business ventures."
•Adams also notes that he was a director of the South Orange County Watershed Conservancy, but Roger von Butow—founder of the environmental group—said Adams was using the organization to boost his pre-election credentials. "He was just trying to pad his résumé," von Butow said. "He is a bought, paid and delivered friend of the developer cartel that controls Orange County." Adams recently resigned after pressure from von Butow.
•Though Adams' résumé touts his affiliation with the Orange County Bar Association, he has not explained why he refused to allow the group to question him about his qualifications and experience to become a judge. The bar, which routinely evaluates judicial candidates, said it couldn't vouch for Adams. The bar deemed Sandoval "qualified."
•And then there is his work with Civic Partners Inc., a Newport Beach-based real-estate developer. Court records show that Adams' history with the company may have been less than flattering. Semingson, president of the company, said a confidential court settlement prohibited him from commenting on Adams as an employee.
Gay Sandoval says the race against Adams has been "fascinating." She would, however, like her opponent to "stop misrepresenting" his credentials. In early October, Adams' well-funded campaign (he has raised more than $100,000) posed destitute and re-posted campaign advertisements that declared, "Remove Judge Kline, Write In Adams." To Sandoval, the move was an attempt to mislead voters. She has asked a court to do the improbable: force Adams to buy half-page advertisements in the Los Angeles Times and The Orange County Register to "set the record straight" about his lies before voters go to the polls.
"I just don't think what he's done is right," she said.
Sandoval's in private civil practice these days, advising small businesses on legal issues. The mother of two children has 10 years of experience as a deputy district attorney. She has prosecuted child molesters, deadbeat parents, drunken drivers and scam artists. She appears very much the PTA president she once was. She's simultaneously soft-spoken and determined. Unlike her opponent, she answers her home phone, though she declines to state a political party preference on her voter-registration card.
Sandoval has solid endorsements—for example, the Association of Orange County Deputy District Attorneys, the Irvine Police Officers Association, Santa Ana Police Chief Paul Walters, as well as numerous current superior court judges.
But she failed to get the backing of perhaps the most influential local politician, Supervisor and soon-to-be Republican Assemblyman Todd Spitzer. Spitzer says Adams "seemed to have the credentials, and he had been active in the anti-[El Toro] airport movement."
But as with almost everything else on Adams' résumé, there are questions about his role in the airport fight. According to Tom Rogers, a former Republican Party chairman and longtime anti-airport leader, "Adams always seemed to appear whenever there was a meeting of the [anti-airport] committee, but never at working sessions, which raised my suspicions about his sincerity on the airport issue." Rogers says his "suspicions were confirmed when [Adams] bought into all the pro-airport slate mailers at the same time he was using the anti-airport association to advance his [judicial] campaign." Rogers dashed off an e-mail to Adams, asking him, "How did you think it would help [the anti-airport] Measure W by providing funds to the No on W mailers?" Rogers never heard back.
Spitzer is defensive about the questions about Adams' autobiography. "If there are issues with John's résumé, then he'll have to be judged at the ballot box," Spitzer said. "I can't be expected to hire private investigators before I give an endorsement."
Besides, Spitzer says, while he may not know everything about Adams, what he knows of Sandoval he doesn't like.
"She just doesn't seem to understand the law," said Spitzer.
His evidence? On Feb. 5, exactly a month before the March election, Sandoval asked the Board of Supervisors to intervene—to direct the county's attorneys to challenge Kline's candidacy. Spitzer blew up.
"Spitzer gave a 10-minute diatribe about how he had personally taken the time to review all the court documents against Kline, how bad Kline was, how he would do anything to get Kline off the ballot, but didn't have the power to do it," Sandoval recalls.
Spitzer followed with decisive action. On Feb. 12, he formally endorsed Adams. The next day, Spitzer e-mailed Sandoval. "I was planning on sitting this race out," he wrote, "but based on your actions, I do not feel you have the judgment to sit on the bench."
It didn't end there. When Kline and Adams finished first and second on March 5, Sandoval says, Spitzer and the board suddenly found the authority they needed to monkey with the ballot—power they had previously asserted they simply didn't have, and it just happened to assist Adams' campaign. At a post-election meeting, the board voted to direct county attorneys to work to keep Kline on the ballot.
Spitzer acknowledges that his man Adams is an increasingly controversial candidate. But he spins the controversy this way: "This may be a situation where we have two problematic candidates."
His problem with Sandoval, he says, is her legal mind—he dismissed her arguments in the Kline case as "suggestions based in myth."
Ironically, it was Sandoval's legal argument and privately funded court battle that removed Kline from the ballot. Sandoval went on to persuade the court to add her name to the ballot, opposite Adams'.
"If my legal reasoning is so bad," Sandoval asks, "how come I keep winning in court? I guess all of the judges I have appeared before in these related cases must have judgment problems, too."