Veteran Orange County criminal defense lawyer Lawrence Anthony Witsoe closed his eyes and remained motionless late this 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 where 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 that 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, who collected a retainer of $2,500 at the outset of the case, had no idea that his bribery option prompted an offended, suspicious Gillis to hire a second attorney before contacting the FBI and then recording damning conversations that proved to be the meat of today'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. And, 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 spoke with into a narcotics world spy in Arizona.
Though delivered with passionate sincerity by the rascally 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 by 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 September 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 the conspiracy learned of their conduct, they'd 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?