It's rare when an Orange County Superior Court judge is the most uncomfortable person in the courtroom, but John Conley couldn't hide his displeasure during a Jan. 16 hearing. A former prosecutor educated at an elite, private New England prep school and known for a distinguished presence, Conley is presiding over a case with lascivious story lines straight out of a lame, 1970s porno. The defendant, Carlos Bustamante–a fired county executive, onetime Santa Ana city councilman and, at least in his own mind, rising, family-values star in the Republican Party–spent years throwing himself at women other than his wife, according to pending criminal charges.
But during a media-packed session in which Bustamante sat slouched, stone-faced and almost entirely silent at the defense table, Conley aimed his ire at prosecutors Matt Lockhart and Aleta Bryant. The scene was remarkable because in our county it's usually defense lawyers who unnerve judges. This day, however, Conley saw the Orange County district attorney's office (OCDA)–not Bustamante–as advancing the indefensible by trying to turn vulgar but non-criminal or, at worst, misdemeanor acts into supposed felonies.
Bryant will handle trial duties in this headlines-grabbing case, while Lockhart–a 19-year veteran known for a rapid wit and colorful mannerisms–plays a secondary role overseeing potential appellate matters and arguing pretrial, legal minutia. He's also the person who was leading the charge to slam Bustamante, a 1991 Cal State Fullerton graduate, with a long list of counts. Lockhart makes no secret of his contempt for the defendant's alleged use of power to molest female employees with kisses, hugs, fondling and sex demands, as well as a knack for masturbating to climax in front of horrified targets.
Could Bustamante's sticky mess get bawdier?
One female victim told investigators that when she was pregnant, Bustamante sought a sex date with her by saying, "Let's put some dents in that baby's head," according to prosecution files.
The session began with Conley announcing his goal was to determine if OCDA's evidence presented during a 2014 preliminary hearing had been enough to support 14 counts. Minutes later, the fireworks began when Conley declared an intention to dismiss the first count.
Lockhart explained that Bustamante's conduct–luring a secretary into his office with intentions to molest her, shutting the door and kissing the woman on the neck during a 10- to 15-second hug–was textbook felony false imprisonment.
"Now, come on!" the glaring judge fired back, noting that thousands of times a day across the nation, bosses close office doors with an employee inside.
Lockhart told Conley his view was misguided. "You can't look at this like it's a generic boss," he explained. "Given his intent to sexually harass her with his creepy sexual behavior, you have to put the door closing in context."
Bryant agreed that "holding someone against her will" is false imprisonment and that the unwanted kiss was "a measure of violence" by "a very powerful man, her employer."
An unconvinced Conley declared, "It's possible there is a misdemeanor here," but he dismissed the count because the statute of limitations had lapsed. He then turned attention to the second, felony false-imprisonment count and voiced his intention to reject that charge as well. An increasingly passionate Lockhart argued that Bustamante had committed the felony by again luring the victim into his office, blocking the exit, and fondling her breasts and buttocks.
After defense lawyer Gina Kershaw claimed prosecutors embellished the details to make matters more sinister, the judge dismissed the charge, saying, "[The government's prosecutors are] really straining to make this conduct felonious."
The statement ignited Lockhart, who stood and, with arms flailing, voiced frustration that Conley refused to agree that the defendant's "deceit" in luring his targets into confined spaces elevated the conduct to felonies.
"I think the facts are shocking," the prosecutor said. "This is despicable conduct. I don't see why the court thinks this is a strain."
Lockhart then uttered the line that quickly sailed throughout the courthouse: "Maybe it's a generational thing."
The judge's eyes opened wide. He stared at the prosecutor for a few seconds before answering. "I don't hold your lack of age against you," said a frowning Conley, who is about three decades older. "So don't hold my age against me."
Tension hadn't peaked. Lockhart restated his implication that the judge must not adequately loathe Bustamante's "really, really creepy" and "menacing" behavior. "The facts seem so egregious," he said.
Still visibly annoyed, Conley told the prosecutor to not lecture him about bad conduct and stated the test of the charges wasn't an emotional one, but rather "Is this a felony punishable by state prison?"
After the hearing, Lockhart told me he still disagreed. "[The judge] was getting ahead of himself," he said. "It is irrelevant in a motion to dismiss to discuss punishment. The only thing that matters is does the conduct fit the elements of the statute. It does overwhelmingly."
Not persuaded, Conley ended up dismissing five counts, including one of the two counts involving Bustamante's alleged masturbation scenes. In his view, prosecutors barely met the lowest hurdle to keep most of the remaining charges. He also didn't like OCDA's plan to label the alleged victims during a future trial as, for example, "Jane Doe C," "Jane Doe H" and "Jane Doe X." The judge believed "the huge [alphabetical] gaps" could mislead jurors about the number of victims. He ordered prosecutors to refer to the women by first name and last initial.
But the day provided only limited relief for Bustamante, who left the hearing with a puzzling explanation for his predicament. He told Orange County Register reporter Kelly Puente that the charges by the OCDA–run by Tony Rackauckas, a Republican with Latino blood–are part of a conspiracy to wreck his political rise. It's not clear why fellow Republicans would want to doom Bustamante with his 2012 arrest when his last grasp for higher office failed miserably six years earlier in a race for county supervisor.
The nine remaining felony and misdemeanor charges involve:
• the October 2010 attempted sexual battery of a secretary who claims she was tricked to enter his office for work matters, but instead endured unwanted hugs and fondling;
• slapping that same secretary's backside in September 2011 while she stood working at an office copy machine;
• stroking the flesh of a different secretary's upper thigh, as well as trying to kiss her while she worked at a cubicle in the summer of 2011;
• stalking a third woman for a three-year period by visiting her house, making repeated phone calls and tracking her whereabouts so he could win "sexual intercourse," as well as masturbating in front of her;
• groping a secretary in an elevator in September 2011;
• demanding a long French kiss from a woman he'd taken to abandoned offices in a Santa Ana bank building in August 2009;
• forcing hugs and kisses on a female job applicant in February 2011;
• grabbing a female employee and rubbing his whiskers on her cheek in July 2011;
• and committing grand theft against the county treasury by swindling more than $3,000 in false reimbursement billings for a 2010 Harvard University "boondoggle."
The parties are scheduled back in Conley's court on Feb. 6 for additional pretrial discussions. No trial date has been set.