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Los Angeles Superior
Court Involved In
Largest Bribery Scandal
In Recent Court History
DAILY NEWS www.dailynews.com
Sunday, August 27,
Court withheld trust account from public
By Troy Anderson
Exposed by the largest bribery scandal in
recent court history, Superior Court officials admit they wrongfully kept secret
an $81.6 million trust account containing $18 million in interest owed to local
governments and individuals, the Daily News has learned.
only after an Encino attorney discovered the account by chance and bribed a
Superior Court Finance Division auditor to feed him the names of those owed
money that officials lifted the confidentiality from the
Before they were caught, the lawyer and clerk
split $1.5 million in fees by telling cities and other government agencies how
they could collect $5 million in forgotten money owed them. While Superior Court
officials have revised procedures for the account, no outside audit of the
account has been conducted. Officials relied on an internal county audit and the
District Attorney's Office investigation of the bribery case
"Very simply, the court's position for a long
time was this money was confidential," said Alf Schonbach, the Superior Court
finance and accounting administrator who oversees the fund. "The court made no
effort to contact persons to whom the money might be
The Condemnation and Interpleader trust account
currently has $63.6 million in deposits in 1,333 cases, some dating back to the
early 1970s. Most of the deposits were made by cities and redevelopment agencies
after condemnation of someone's property under eminent domain laws. Over the
years, the fund accrued $18 million in interest from investment in U.S.
Schonbach acknowledged that the
courts did nothing until recently to notify people about the account, but said
there now seems to be little interest by the cities that have a responsibility
to homeowners involved in the cases. The court has been sending out notices
every six months to cities with cases, but has only received six
"Ultimately, the responsibility really falls on the attorneys in
cases," Schonbach said. "Given the number of cases heard in Los
Angeles Superior Court, it's unreasonable to believe that a small accounting
staff within the court is going to play nursemaid and remind these attorneys
that they have forgotten to complete their work." Most of the money is deposits
made by cities and redevelopment agencies,
but Schonbach estimates a small
amount is due to homeowners and their heirs.
of these older cases, people may have moved or are deceased," he said. "Probably
less than 3 (percent) to 4 percent of the total in that fund is awaiting its
rightful owners to come forward." The bribery case revealed that for decades the
Superior Court failed to
make public the individuals, businesses and
municipalities that are owed money from the account. Schonbach said the informal
policy was in place before he and the court clerk took their jobs in the early
1990s and that as a result of the bribery case, the County Counsel's Office
recommended they make the fund public. Since last year, the court has been
sending notices to cities every six months telling them about money principal
and interest owed them. "We never made a deliberate attempt to conceal the
information," Schonbach said.
But retired Assistant
County Counsel Fred Bennett, who advised the courts for 25 years and retired in
April, said nobody ever gave the
court legal advice that the fund was
confidential. "When this matter was first brought to my attention, I advised the
court I could not see any compelling reasons that would warrant nondisclosure of
this kind of information," Bennett said. Bennett became suspicious * about the potential of someone exploiting the account
when he learned an attorney was contacting cities and telling them he could get
them their lost funds if they paid him half.
very concerned that their record-keeping system -- that they
didn't have a
good paper trail on whether the money had been paid out," Bennett said. "There
was a person at the meeting named Gregory Pentoney. I recalled my fears when I
later learned of the investigation of Pentoney. I took all my notes to the
District Attorney's Office." In the scheme, Pentoney, 32, of Downey gave secret
county account data to Encino attorney Robert Fenton, 51, who collected "bounty
fees" for tracking down forgotten funds owed to cities, mostly in interest,
according to court records.
Under a plea bargain
in March, Fenton pleaded no contest to giving a bribe to a ministerial officer.
Pentoney pleaded no contest to accepting a bribe. Without the plea bargain, they
each faced 12 years in prison.
On Aug. 11, Fenton
began a 16-month state prison term. On Sept. 8, Pentoney is expected to begin
serving a two-year prison term. Fenton distributed $5 million to cities,
involving 99 separate cases,
and collected fees of about $1 million for
himself and $463,165 for
The public agencies put money into the account
when a property owner contested an eminent domain proceeding. The deposit was
based on the assessed value of the properties
being sought for public works projects. These cases can wind through the court
system for years.
Fenton discovered the fund after his
parents' property in North
Hollywood was condemned, said James Blatt, an
representing Fenton. Blatt said Fenton, who is married and
the father of five, had the "best intentions" when he developed his plan to
profit from returning the money to the rightful
"Fenton's conduct in this case was the result
of his unlikely discovery of funds wrongfully possessed by Los Angeles County
and his desire to obtain the return of those funds," Blatt said. "In so doing,
Fenton's judgment clouded, and what he now understands were bribes were paid.
"What's so shocking about this case is that over the years Los Angeles County
did not make any effort to return these monies to the rightful owners," Blatt
One of the cities Fenton contacted was
Glendale Chief Assistant Attorney Ron Braden
said his finance director received a letter from Fenton stating he could recover
money for the city for a fee. Piquing his interest, Braden discovered that no
one in the city had thought to recover interest on deposits made with the court
on eminent domain cases over the years. "This happened not only to Glendale, but
a whole bunch of other government entities," he said. "I understand that it
wasn't done as a matter of practice where attorneys for cities go back into
court to get whatever balance is owed them."
of taking Fenton up on his offer, Braden contacted the court to find out which
cases the city could collect on. He intended to get the money by himself. After
several unsuccessful attempts to find the cases, Braden contacted Pentoney, who
suggested he look through a court index. After looking at the index, he got a
call from Fenton, who told him he had found only a small portion of the cases.
Fenton told him he would help him find the rest.
So Braden agreed to pay
"We found about $400,000 worth of cases on our
own and he probably found $1.3 million above that," Braden said, adding that the
city paid Fenton about $2,800 and was about to pay him an additional $33,000
when an investigator called and told him Fenton was under investigation. "When I
got that call I did not release that check for $33,000 to him," Braden said. "I
was outraged and incensed personally."
Fenton sued the city to recover the $33,000. The lawsuit is on hold while he is
in prison. "The only thing that bothers me frankly is that Mr. Fenton sued us,"
Braden said. "And Mr. Fenton said in our open court through his
attorney during sentencing that he intends to proceed with his lawsuit
against us. I think that's outrageous."
* Ronald Branson, author of
JAIL4Judges, has had a number of court dealings with Frederick Bennett. On every
case in which Branson brought action against a Los Angeles County judge for
actions in complete absence of all jurisdiction, (supposedly the only grounds in
which judges do not enjoy protection under judicial immunity) it was Frederick
Bennett that would show up in defense of the miscreant judge. He always appeared
confident and arrogant. He would remark to the judge hearing the case words
like, "How's Mary and the kids?" and talk on a personal one-to-one relationship
with the judges. He has been defending all the corrupt judges in the County of
Los Angeles for many years. Even if you went to federal court, he would carry on
in front of the federal judges in this manner.
He is reported
to have said to a friend of Mr. Branson who was bringing an action against a Los
Angeles County judge defendant, "There has never, in my entire experience as
defense for the judges, been a ruling against any of our judges," inferring that
his case was a certain lost cause. (And, of course, it was.)
It was people
like Frederick Bennett that helped educate Mr. Branson into the dire need for
JAIL4Judges. In the above article, Mr. Bennett attempts to portray himself as a
man of integrity in the L.A. Court Corruption Scandal, and totally uninvolved.
You be the judge.
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