Orange County Defense Lawyer Caught In DEA Bribery Scheme Learns Punishment
Federal prosecutors won DEA bribery case convictions but lost punishment argument
A veteran Orange County criminal defense lawyer convicted in a bribery scheme involving a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) task force officer hoped at today's sentencing hearing that his punishment would be no more than 12 months of home confinement.
Following a 2011 FBI arrest and a May jury's guilty verdicts, Lawrence Anthony Witsoe of Mission Viejo faced between 33 and 41 months in a federal prison, according to sentencing guidelines.
But Kenneth B. Julian, Witsoe's attorney, made a passionate argument that 33 months, the term sought by federal prosecutors Robert J. Keenan and Jennifer L. Waier, was excessive because, though the crimes were "totally misguided and completely stupid," his 70-year-old client "is a man who lived his life right. . . . He's a family man and [has] been a good lawyer for people in this community."
In the bribery scheme, Witsoe funneled $2,500 from a misdemeanor assault case client to Rialto Police Department officer/DEA task force member Aaron Scott Vigil, who in return deceitfully lobbied Orange County district attorney's office prosecutors that the defendant deserved special consideration because he was a confidential narcotics informant.
That client, startled Arizona businessman Wayne Gillis, who has never been an informant, contacted the FBI after Witsoe proposed the scheme, and then, in cooperation with agents, recorded telephone calls, wore a recording device during face-to-face meetings and paid the bribe.
Witsoe, who did not take a cut of the money and is planning to appeal his convictions, posed as remorseful to U.S. District Court Judge Andrew J. Guilford.
"I truly apologize for my actions," said Witsoe. "I violated my own personal code of ethics. I brought shame to myself, my family and my profession."
Assistant United States Attorney Waier urged Guilford to take the crime "very, very seriously."
"The nature of the offense screams for a 33-month sentence," she added. "We have to send a message that public corruption is going to be prosecuted and punished."
Julian, a former federal prosecutor who supervised Waier and Keenan in Orange County's Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse before going into private practice at Manatt Phelps and Phillips LLP in Costa Mesa, asked the judge to consider Witsoe's advanced age, numerous medical woes and a life expectancy of less than six years.
"It would be very dangerous to put him anywhere but home detention," said Julian, who'd recommended 12 months in a pre-hearing brief, but during this afternoon's oral argument amended that suggestion to "three to six months."
Guilford--a thoughtful, brainy judge appointed to the bench by President George W. Bush in 2006--noted he was impressed by supportive statements made by a Witsoe law firm employee, a former client and his wife, who pushed for a "compassionate" punishment. He acknowledged that the defendant's loving family and friends loaded the public seating section. He even praised the man's pro bono legal work.
But the judge said Witsoe's scheme "really, really troubles me" because such crimes threaten the "integrity of the system."
He issued a warning to any other Orange County lawyers who might be bribing law enforcement officials: "There are consequences."
To a hushed courtroom, Guilford then declared that a reasonable punishment is 12 months and one day in prison, a $7,500 fine due within 30 days, and, when Witsoe emerges back into society, supervised probation for three years.
Julian asked that his mild-mannered client--who can no longer practice law--be sent to the low-security federal prison at Lompoc, a request Guilford said he would "strongly recommend" to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.
So that the defendant can spend the holidays with his family, the judge gave him until noon on Jan. 31, 2014, to surrender his freedom.
Guilford sentenced 43-year-old Vigil to a term of 33 months in September.
The disgraced, money-hungry, ex-cop is presently housed in a federal prison located on the Texas-New Mexico border north of El Paso.