Illustration by Matt BorsAt a glance, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's recent choice of Steve Bromberg to fill a judicial vacancy at the Orange County Superior Court seems reasonable. When he's not serving as the law-and-order mayor of Newport Beach, Bromberg works as a successful personal-injury lawyer. He's also served as a judge pro tempore in LA and OC courts for nearly a quarter century.
Indeed, Bromberg—who has been careful to cozy up to politically connected Irvine Co. lobbyists over the years—isn't shy about his ambitions. "I've had my sights on a judgeship for a long time," he told TheOrangeCountyRegisteron May 21.
But Bromberg's role in a recent high-profile scandal raises questions about his fitness for the bench.
Bromberg's biggest problem is likely to be his friendship with Charles H. Gabbard, a Newport Beach businessman/felon at the center of the ongoing corruption scandal that brought down Assistant Sheriff George Jaramillo. Gabbard, who was given immunity from prosecution last year despite repeatedly lying to investigators—including an FBI special agent—has a long criminal history. He's been in and out of California prisons for two decades on charges that include armed robberies, violent escape from prison, vagrancy, attempted robbery, numerous parole violations, possession of illegal drugs, embezzlement and murder. Five years ago, Gabbard hoped to win a government-approved monopoly for his business—CHG Safety Technologies—after he funneled more than $80,000 in illegal contributions to Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona, then-Governor Gray Davis and state Senator Sheila Kuehl (D-Los Angeles).
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According to law enforcement records reviewed by the Weekly, Bromberg knew the details of Gabbard's criminal history but still vouched for his character. "Charlie is a very good person," Bromberg told the Registerafter the illegal campaign contributions scheme was revealed in 2004. "He's not going to BS you."
Some might view Bromberg's support for Gabbard as loyalty to a friend, but there's more to the story. During the Gabbard-CHG contributions scheme, he served as the registered agent and legal adviser to the company. Worse, records show that the incoming judge not only knew about the illegal plot but may have participated in it as well.
In early 2000, for example, CHG executives and stockholders illegally contributed more than $40,000 to Carona during a breakfast meeting and so-called birthday party for the sheriff. The purpose of the meetings was threefold: persuade Carona to publicly endorse the company's product, a laser designed to safely end police pursuits; get the sheriff's permission to use department resources for a product demonstration at the former Marine base at El Toro; and entice the sheriff to write a supportive letter to the California legislature, which was considering a bill to mandate CHG's equipment on all vehicles in the state.
Carona complied with all three requests after the illegal campaign funds poured in and offered a bonus to CHG: the use of free inmate labor, according to a memo disclosed earlier this year by the Weekly("Who Shot the Sheriff?" April 15). The sheriff recently explained that he had been joking. In 2004, however, he told a DA investigator that he couldn't remember if he'd offered the sweetheart deal to CHG, but didn't think it would have been illegal if he had.
Law-enforcement records tie Bromberg—CHG's lawyer and stockholder and Gabbard's pal—to the scandal. He contributed $1,000 to Carona, and then accepted full reimbursement from the company, according to statements Gabbard and his wife, Toni Van Schultze, gave to the FBI last year. It's not only highly unethical to hide the true source of a campaign contribution, it's also illegal.
Bromberg insists, however, he was not reimbursed and has been cleared by a California Fair Political Practices Commission investigation. In fact, he claims he had no knowledge of the illegal-campaign-contributions scheme. "It's just not something I would have participated in," he told the Weekly. "Unfortunately, CHG did not confer with me on any of these issues, and that is a shame. Had I been consulted, I would have been in a position to advise that this is very wrong and they should stay away from that type of conduct."
Asked recently by the DailyPilotfor his biggest accomplishment as mayor, Bromberg said he is most proud of restoring public trust in elected officials. "I think more people trust their local government than they did before, and I'd like to think I was a part of that," he said.
Bromberg will be sworn in as Orange County's newest Superior Court judge on June 24.
To read more, go to "Misjudgments."
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