In February, when ex-superior court judge Michael Greer stood before a federal judge for sentencing on the bribery charges he had pled guilty to several months before, he was contrite. The 62-year-old former presiding judge, who was trying to escape the prison terms handed out to his fellow defendants in the city's most sensational judicial corruption case in modern times, rose from his seat to apologize for the "incredible disaster" he said he had caused for local jurisprudence.
"Early on, I recognized Mr. Frega for what he was but didn't have the courage to put an end to the problem before further damage occurred," Greer said of Patrick Frega, the attorney whom he had testified against and who was convicted of providing gratuities to Greer and two of his fellow judges, Dennis Adams and James Alan Malkus, both of whom received more than two years in prison for racketeering conspiracy and mail fraud. Frega, who provided such gifts as health club memberships and car repairs, drew a 41-month sentence.
At the time of the sentencing, the superior court's current presiding judge, William J. Howatt Jr., was happy to absolve the local bench of any wrongdoing, reserving all his public abuse for Greer. "Greer's betrayal of his oath of office and the disrespect he has caused to be placed on the courts is unconscionable," Howatt said in a prepared statement timed for release after the sentencing. "He has dishonored himself, his family, his friends, and the court and community he was sworn to serve." But Howatt insisted Greer was an exception. "It is my sincere hope that this community will come to know, as I do, that each of the judges of our court takes his oath and responsibilities seriously to provide this community with a fair, impartial, and independent judiciary."
Howatt's remarks triggered the inevitable snickers among cynical courthouse watchers, who claim that a good old boy network at the courthouse often controls major judicial decisions. Now comes word that Greer, who during a controversial sentencing hearing postured himself as a poor and broken man doing penance for his judicial sins, is back for another bite at the apple.
This time, he's suing the state to get his $50,000-plus annual pension back. And after hanging around in Howatt's court for a week, the case has been quietly kicked up to a Riverside County court, where it presumably will get much less news coverage. A spokeswoman for the court administration says that the case was automatically sent north to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest, although there are no official filings to that effect, merely a letter of transfer by judicial secretary Pauline Berglund.
Greer claims in his lawsuit, filed two weeks ago, that the state can't legally take away the bulk of his pension because a provision in state code that requires revocation of judicial pensions in corruption cases was passed into law in 1989, and most of Greer's time on the bench was served before then.
The law requires that "a judge who pleads guilty or no contest or is found guilty of a crime committed while holding judicial office which is punishable as a felony under California or federal law and which either involves moral turpitude under that law or was committed in the course and scope of performing the judge's dutiesIshall not receive any benefits from the Judge's Retirement System, except that the amount of his or her accumulated contributions shall be paid to him or her by the Judge's Retirement System."
But Greer's complaint argues that "the entire denial of benefits prior to January 1, 1989 (effective date of the pension denial law), is contrary to settled principles of the California Supreme Court as it relates to retroactivity." Greer also argues that the state pension board "acted arbitrarily and capriciously with regards to withholding benefits for the years January 1, 1989, to January 1, 1991," which was the date on which Greer's last term in office began. He quit the bench in June 1993 in the wake of the investigation that eventually snared him and his fellow defendants.
Greer says in his suit that despite his demands for payment, the state has "refused to pay Petitioner's retirement benefits as well as medical and dental benefits." At the time of Greer's retirement, the suit says, he had served 13 years and 11 months on the bench. Based on what he maintains was his annual salary in 1993 of $103,219, Greer's claim works out to about $50,000 a year.
A spokesman for the California Public Employees Retirement System, the target of Greer's suit, confirms that the ex-judge's pension and benefits have been denied under the law, and that the pension system has been served with the suit, but would not comment further. Bruce Cornblum, the Rancho Bernardo lawyer representing Greer, did not respond to requests for comment.
Greer's attempts to hang on to his pension appear to be in direct contradiction to the claims of poverty he and his criminal defense attorney made during his February sentencing hearing. Although his fellow defendants were appealing their convictions, Greer, who took $75,000 worth of gratuities from Frega, said he would face the music. He pleaded guilty, he said, as soon as he was confronted with the charges against him as, he claimed, "a demonstration of the courage I lacked in the past." Greer's attorney Robert Brewer added that the former judge would soon be disbarred from the practice of law and that Greer would be prohibited from any activity having to do with the practice of law.
"People have to understand that Judge Greer is basically a ruined human being," Brewer told a reporter on the courthouse steps. Not only was Greer a broken man, Brewer told the court, but his house was being sold to satisfy debts. Greer pleaded with the judge to keep himself out of jail. "There is not a day in the last several years that the horror I have created is not on my mind and eating away at my insides."
The ex-judge then talked about his suicide attempt in a Hemet motel room in January 1996, in which he swallowed pills and apparently attempted to slit his wrists. Greer said he had no idea why he didn't die. "Medically, I should have died. It was not my time," Greer told the court. Greer's attorney told the court that the ex-judge was a sick man, friendless and desolate, who had abandoned almost all hope of living.
When it was over, Greer got off without going to prison, although according to the federal probation department, he should have been handed four years behind bars plus a huge fine. Instead, federal Judge Edward Rafeedie fined Greer just $50, the minimum needed to comply with the law, and gave him three years' probation. Greer's health and his cooperation in the case against Adams, Malkus, and Frega were given as the reason for the soft sentence. Rafeedie then claimed that he believed the Greer case was an aberration. San Diego lawyers and judges are "honest and honorable," he said, and California courts are also "squeaky clean." Greer's case against the state pension board may soon test that assumption.