*** Judge Trammell Goes Down On Mail Fraud
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Obscure Mail Fraud Statute Brought Ex-Judge Down
Crime: Jurist who had affair with the wife of a defendant in his courtroom was formally charged with twice misusing the mail for her benefit.
Former Superior Court Judge George W. Trammell's undoing wasn't in having sex with a woman whose husband was a defendant in a criminal case he was hearing, even if she did so out of fear Trammell would throw the book at her husband at sentencing time.
And it wasn't, technically, when Trammell used his judicial influence--and taxpayer money--to help the woman recover a Mercedes-Benz, two Rolexes and other valuables that had been seized by law enforcement.
What Trammell did that allowed federal prosecutors to file criminal charges against him was to use the U.S. mail when helping the woman, Pifen Lo, during their illicit sexual tryst in 1996.
On Thursday, more than three years after abruptly retiring from the bench, Trammell was formally charged in federal court with two counts of mail fraud.
The court filing containing the charges says Trammell used the mail to execute "a scheme to defraud the people of the state of California of their intangible right to his honest services as a judge . . . by means of false and fraudulent pretenses and representations."
Authorities also entered Trammell's signed agreement to plead guilty to the charges and face as much as 18 months of prison time.*
Trammell had faced a total of 10 years in prison and $500,000 in fines in the case.
Trammell, his lawyer John Barnett said, "is just glad that this matter will finally be concluded and he can put this behind him."
"We think that this is a fair resolution to all the issues. This is a conflict-of-interest case. That's all it is," said Barnett. "He had contact with a party to a criminal case. And that's improper under the canons of judicial ethics. There's no agreement or factual basis to show that his contact had any improper effect on the case."
U.S. Atty. Alejandro Mayorkas said Trammell's transgressions were far more serious than that.
"This is a crime of the worst kind," said Mayorkas. "This individual, entrusted with the most sacred of responsibilities, abused his power and corrupted the administration of justice."
It also is a crime that warranted a novel prosecution: An FBI agent and a federal prosecutor working hand in hand built the case with a little-used federal statute enacted specifically to pursue corrupt public figures who might otherwise escape prosecution.
Trammell, 64, was one of the most senior Superior Court judges when he resigned in January 1997.
Trammell's resignation--after 26 years on the bench--came one day after sheriff's deputies served search warrants at his house and chambers.
A defendant in Trammell's courtroom had made allegations that the judge was having an affair with his wife.
Soon the district attorney's office began investigating, and found that Trammell did have a sexual relationship with Lo, who was on probation. At the time, her husband, Ming Ching Jin, was awaiting sentencing in Trammell's court on kidnapping and other charges.
Trammell said the relationship was platonic.
But investigators concluded that Jin tried to blackmail Trammell "in an attempt to extort favorable treatment" during sentencing.
That raised the specter of entrapment of the judge, who was familiar with Lo because she had been convicted in a kidnapping case in his courtroom a few months earlier. He sentenced her to probation, over the objection of prosecutors who had urged jail time.
County Prosecutors Declined Case
County prosecutors considered prosecuting Trammell on rape or other charges, but ultimately concluded they couldn't make the case stick.
Then the California Court of Appeal ordered a judicial inquiry, which found that Trammell had been having sex with Lo for more than three months during the time her husband was appearing in his courtroom.
Orange County Superior Court Judge Frank Fasel, who led the inquiry, found that Trammell had pressured Lo into submitting to acts of sexual intercourse if she wanted him to give Jin a reduced sentence.
Trammell defended himself, saying he got close to Lo to protect himself from Jin and potential organized crime figures.
But Fasel ultimately ruled that Trammell committed judicial misconduct, and ordered that Jin be granted a new trial.
By early 1998, armed with Fasel's findings, the district attorney's office reconsidered filing conspiracy to obstruct justice charges and even rape under color of authority, but ultimately declined a second time.
Then the feds stepped in.
At first, federal authorities investigated Trammell to see if he had violated Lo's civil rights by pressuring her to have sex with him. The FBI and U.S. attorney's office concluded that they too couldn't make such a case stick, given that it would be hard to prove the sex acts weren't consensual.
The case was referred to Assistant U.S. Atty. Jack Weiss and FBI Special Agent Tracey Silberling in the public corruption squad.
They saw Trammell's appointment of attorney Dale Rubin to represent Lo at public expense as an avenue of attack, using a rarely used federal mail fraud statute, 18 U.S.C. 1346.
That statute, part of the much-touted Anti-Corruption Act of 1988, had been enacted because the U.S. Supreme Court a year earlier had decreed that general mail fraud laws weren't created to fight public corruption.
Specifically, the statute prohibits any public official from engaging in any "scheme or artifice to defraud . . . or defraud another of the intangible right of honest services."
The prosecutor and agent looked further, and found that Trammell had directed Rubin to file a motion on Lo's behalf, seeking the return of her seized property.
Rubin mailed the motion in November 1996, including an affidavit from Lo that the FBI now says Trammell helped her put together.
That piece of mail was one count filed against Trammell on Thursday.
The second was the $700 check for legal fees that Rubin got for helping Lo at Trammell's direction.
"That enabled us to proceed," said Weiss, who has since left the U.S. attorney's office. "Ultimately, it gave us the federal hook we needed to bring the charges."
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times
* I can't help but to engage in a little parody in our so-called "justice" system. Above, we are told that Judge Trammell faces "as much as 18 months of prison time." Yet today's news, (9/26/00) reports that a prison guard who had sex with Susan Harris, the woman who pushed her car off into the lake and drowned her two children, will go away for ten years in prison. Now you tell me, who retained more control over the situation, holding the greater position of public trust? A prison guard over an inmate, or a judge presiding over a criminal case of a wife's husband facing him for sentencing? Which? Oh, and let us not forget, Judge Trammell only faces as much as 18 months. What is your guess what he will actually receive? And do you think he will get the same accommodations as any normal prisoner? If anything, he will doubtless face a federal country club atmosphere for politicians that holds a lifestyle that many of could not afford, complete with tennis courts and other resort goodies.Also, let us note that the federal government states "it would be hard to prove the sex acts weren't consensual." Yet, in the prison guard's case, it didn't matter whether the sexual act was consensual or not, for the law strictly forbids sexual acts of prison guards with inmates. It is treated like statutory rape.But judges? How is it that we would even question consensualality between a judge and defendant or defendant's wife? Pray tell, under what possible circumstances is it okay for a judge to have sex with a man's wife while deciding her husband's fate, consensual or not? Tell me? Why is it "consensual" even a question? Have we gone insane? If anyone can give a reasoning on this, then I suggest we give free access of all male prison guards to the willing female inmates. Isn't it then just a matter of freedom of choice? And how about if the judge, instead of receiving sex, received money? Would it then be necessary to "prove" the money was not freely given? or have we now distinguished bribery based on whether it is "consensual" or "unconsensual?"-Ron BransonJ.A.I.L. is an acronym for (Judicial Accountability Initiative Law)
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