Free Jim Toledano and Michael Roberts Now
In March 2010, Paul Roper entered the secret, Santa Ana confines of the Orange County grand jury, swore to tell the truth, and then gave misleading expert-witness testimony that ensured the criminal-justice system would wreck the lives of two innocent men.
Members of the grand jury bought Roper's act, which probably wouldn't have happened if Deputy District Attorney Rebecca Olivieri had shared with them one credibility-destroying bombshell about her star witness. Denied that information—which I'll detail momentarily—grand jurors couldn't think of one question that day for Roper.
In fact, according to unsealed transcripts of the proceeding, members of the grand jury—mostly elderly folks—wanted to stop the hearing before 3 p.m. so they could spend the afternoon on personal errands. Insisting on premature adjournment, the foreperson worried aloud, "I'm not sure the attention span is going to stay with us."
Who could blame them? They weren't preparing to indict anyone they knew. Besides, the extortion case wasn't the least bit interesting.
It only involved allegations of straight, gay and bisexual sex; a magnificent Southern California ranch; secret love letters, underhanded plots to grab control of tens of millions of dollars; impotence; backstabbing; illicit drug use; hidden body wires; foreign trips; wild, all-night New York dance parties; questionable photographs; expensive race cars; venereal disease; exotic plant sales; a duffle bag stuffed with $350,000; and an undercover police sting at a hotel near John Wayne Airport.
Later, when the grand jury regained focus, it indicted Jim Toledano, a civil attorney and the former chairman of the Orange County Democratic Party, and Michael Roberts, a Corona del Mar gym trainer and Toledano's client, for allegedly conspiring to blackmail Dick and Priscilla "Bo" Marconi, two ultra-wealthy San Juan Capistrano residents (see "This Sting Stinks," June 24).
Roberts had been the Marconis' live-in personal trainer, travel companion and dear friend. Dick treated him like a son. Priscilla treated him like a secret lover or a best friend, depending on who is talking. Something (exactly what, the two sides can't agree on) happened, and Roberts was booted from the guesthouse.
In the aftermath, each side said terrible things about the other and summoned civil lawyers to battle their positions. Roberts claimed Priscilla slandered his reputation in Orange County's ritzy coastal communities, where he sold exotic plants, costing him several hundred thousand dollars in income; she claimed he invented a sexual relationship between them to break up her marriage. Before a resolution, the Marconis and Roper went to law enforcement in early 2008, inspired a sting operation, and got the authorities to arrest Roberts and his lawyer for extortion. The men are out of custody on bail and awaiting trial.
The case rests solely on Roper, whom Olivieri presented to the grand jury as a credible expert witness even though he is not only the Marconis' personal lawyer, but also their longtime friend and business partner. In other words, the lawyer for one side in what had been a nasty civil dispute got unfettered, private access to the grand jury. Though Olivieri also let the Marconis tell their version of events, the panel wasn't given any exculpatory information, and no one representing Toledano or Roberts was allowed to testify. Not surprisingly, on April 2, 2010, the grand jury gave Olivieri her indictment.
Extortion occurs when someone uses a threat of physical harm or injury to a person's reputation in order to get that person to relinquish something of value (i.e., property or cash). The Toledano/Roberts case centers on the assertion that Toledano demanded $350,000 by threatening to reveal Priscilla's affair with his client to Orange County journalists, as well as threatening to file perjury charges against her for lying under oath about the intimacy.
Trouble plagued the government's case from the outset. If there's a trial, Olivieri will have to explain to a jury how Toledano and Roberts could have threatened to expose the affair in exchange for money when rumors of the affair had been made public precisely a month earlier than the alleged extortion transaction. That's right: The supposed victim here, Priscilla, had revealed the affair rumor in public documents when she requested a temporary restraining order against Roberts.
Worse for the government, Roper—who declined interview requests—is the only person who claims Toledano threatened a perjury charge and an embarrassing media leak. If neither actually happened, then there couldn't have been an extortion plot.
In front of the grand jury, Olivieri asked Roper point-blank, "Did [Toledano] say whether or not he was going to move forward or seek to have charges filed against [Priscilla] for [perjury]?"
Roper's unequivocal reply: "No, I do not presently recall that conversation."
The answer destroyed the perjury angle the prosecutor wanted to use against Toledano. Four questions later, she re-asked the question, and this time, she got a different answer, "Yes," he said.
Roper had somehow suddenly recalled two times that Toledano threatened a perjury charge, but couldn't remember when or where.
Olivieri then asked Roper if the extortion-plot threats had been "fresher in your mind" when he gave an interview to Newport Beach police immediately after the alleged crimes occurred at Toledano's law office.
"Oh, sure," he replied.
Then, the prosecutor loaded a question with damning assertion against Toledano: that he'd mentioned The Orange County Register would learn of the affair rumor. A malleable Roper replied, "I would go with that. . . ."
But the police report of the Roper interview doesn't mention anything about threats to go to the media or file perjury charges. In essence, the report states a non-crime: According to Roper, Toledano said he wouldn't file a lawsuit for damages if the Marconis settled the matter.
The case against Toledano and Roberts further collapses when you consider their indictments hinged on Roper's laughably erroneous assurances to the grand jury that civil lawyers "in almost every case" file a lawsuit, and then begin negotiations. Roper testified that Toledano proved his criminal intentions by trying to negotiate a settlement prior to going to court. His legal opponent had "simply" been trying to sell Roberts' silence about the affair as a "way to extract money." Roper called such tactics "just a shakedown."
He should know.
Stay with me here: Three decades ago, preachers Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were prominent televangelists with the Praise the Lord (PTL) network. The Bakkers' empire collapsed after revelations that Jim had a sexual escapade with a church secretary, Jessica Hahn, and that PTL had paid, according to The New York Times, "hush money" to keep her silent about the tryst.
What does that have to do with the present extortion case? Without filing a lawsuit, the man who approached PTL to secretly negotiate Hahn's silence in exchange for $265,000 was Paul Roper.
The deafening sound you just heard was the collapse of Roper's credibility—and Olivieri's case.
This column appeared in print as "Free Jim Toledano and Michael Roberts Now: Looks like the government's star witness in a wild Newport Beach extortion case has a credibility problem to go along with his conflict of interest."