Veteran Orange County criminal defense lawyer Lawrence Anthony Witsoe closed his eyes and remained motionless late Tuesday afternoon as a court clerk read a series of guilty verdicts against him in what could go down as one of the dumbest bribery convictions in California history.
FBI bribery probes usually capture greedy, selfish characters, and yet more than a week of evidence and testimony inside Santa Ana's Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse repeatedly underscored that the low-key Witsoe doesn't fit the mold.
In 2009, the Mission Viejo-based lawyer orchestrated a quid pro quo deal in which Phoenix businessman Wayne Gillis, a client facing criminal assault charges, secretly paid $2,500 to get Aaron Scott Vigil, a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) task-force agent, to lobby local prosecutors for a dismissal by falsely claiming Gillis was a confidential informant deserving of special treatment. Vigil made three dishonest efforts to aid Gillis. Money changed hands. Gillis got his charges dropped.
He didn't ask for or receive a nickel in the conspiracy, a monumental fact that gives credibility to an argument by Witsoe defense lawyer Ken Julian, who told the jury his client's motives were solely to aid Gillis because he thought he was being railroaded in an overblown John Wayne Airport head-butting incident.
Witsoe had no idea his bribery option prompted an offended, suspicious Gillis to hire a second attorney before contacting the FBI, then recording damning conversations that proved to be the meat of Tuesday's convictions won by federal prosecutors Rob Keenan and Jennifer Waier.
I'm not usually sympathetic to excuses for knowing and willful felonious conduct, but I can't recall an adult defendant risking so much, gaining nothing for himself, and then facing what is likely to be a trip to federal prison given that jurors found him guilty of committing four crimes. As sheriff-turned-inmate Mike Carona can attest, U.S. District Court Judge Andrew J. Guilford rightfully finds no amusement in public corruption.
For his role in the crime, Vigil—a onetime Rialto police officer—won a lone conviction for conspiracy to commit bribery. Jurors couldn't reach unanimous verdicts against him on other counts. His lawyer, Michael D. Schwartz, argued during closing statements that the DEA special agent didn't lie for Gillis in hopes of receiving a bribe, but rather to convert the temperamental businessman he'd never met or spoken with into a narcotics-world spy in Arizona.
Though delivered with passionate sincerity by Schwartz—a superbly gifted lawyer who also represents one of the Fullerton cops who beat Kelly Thomas to death—it's unlikely the jury of eight women and four men, who ultimately went easier on the disgraced narcotics officer, fell for that laughable pitch. Vigil may have benefited from the fact that, for whatever reason, the FBI investigation focused almost entirely on capturing the defense lawyer.
So while Witsoe (who faces a maximum sentence of 35 years) and Vigil (who could get five years in prison) await their Sept. 9 sentencing, there's one lingering criminal-justice-system question.
After Vigil made his first deceitful call to sway prosecutors inside the Orange County district attorney's office, the FBI got Dan Hess, a DA supervisor, to call the DEA agent and quiz him about his imaginary contacts with Gillis. A worried Vigil relayed his fears about the Hess call to Witsoe, who then—again, without knowing he was being recorded—told Gillis, "Mum's the word" because if anyone outside of the conspiracy learned of their conduct, they'd all be in "deep yogurt."
Witsoe also said this: "Normally, we don't have a problem."
Does that statement mean Orange County courthouses have a bigger public-official-bribery problem than we know?
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KNOTT'S BERRY FARM TICKET SCAM UNRAVELED
A federal grand jury this month indicted two Southern California rappers with ties to Long Beach and Canoga Park for operating an identity-theft ring that sold discounted Knott's Berry Farm tickets through Craigslist ads.
Claiming they were "legit" in the ads while using fake names, Lamarr T. Ramsey and Horbert Robert Thursby were clueless that their criminal conspiracy attracted the attention of an undercover, cybercrime squad at the FBI, according to court records.
Prosecutors claim the duo purchased more than 110 stolen credit cards online, used the information to buy tickets to the amusement park, and then sold substantially discounted tickets to the public.
In August 2012, an FBI agent responded to the ad, ordered six tickets for $120 and met Thursby in a Buena Park Walgreen's parking lot on Beach Boulevard, close to the entrance of Knott's Berry Farm and Soak City.
Thursby (a.k.a. "Gotti") didn't know an FBI surveillance team filmed the transactions and agents used the ticket information to trace the credit card used in the $405 purchase to a Simi Valley women, who was unaware her data had been compromised.
An FBI report outlines how agents also easily traced Internet Protocol (IP) addresses tied to the fraudulent transactions (which also included airline ticket purchases and gift deliveries to inmates) and claims the information lead them to Ramsey and Thursby, who'd apparently made futile efforts—such as using an unwitting friend's home Internet server—to mask their identities.
According to court records, the alleged swindlers made as much as $2,000 per day and will face Assistant United States Attorney Douglas F. McCormick in a scheduled five-day trial set for July 2 in federal Judge Cormac J. Carney's courtroom.
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UNUSUAL COURT REQUESTS
Leon Draper, an accused bank-fraud defendant awaiting trial for alleged financial shenanigans involving a Fountain Valley gas station and car wash, is out of custody on $10,000 bond. As with all pretrial criminal defendants, Draper had to surrender his U.S. passport, but he wants it back for an unusual reason. He intends to fly to Kuwait at the end of the month to sell two expensive, exotic Savannah cats, each of which can be valued at $20,000 or more.
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On May 14, the defendant's taxpayer-funded defense lawyer promised Judge Guilford her client would stay in the Middle East only long enough to get the cats through customs; he would then immediately return to Orange County.
Puzzled about the rush for the overseas trip, Guilford said no.
A portion of this column appeared on our news blog, Navel Gazing.