Thursday, December 27, 2001
CJP Charges Fresno Judge With Questionable Financial Dealings
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A Fresno Superior Court judge has been charged with misconduct by the Commission on Judicial Performance in connection with his dealings with an investment promoter sentenced to federal prison, the commission said yesterday.
The charges against Judge James I. Aaron, 59, come more than a year after Kenneth L. Roper and two others were sentenced to federal prison by U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger for masterminding what the judge called “a classic Ponzi scheme.” Wanger directed that transcripts of testimony regarding Aaron’s involvement be forwarded to the CJP.
Investors poured money into Westminster Financial Associates, saying they invested between $125,000 and $250,000 each for promised annual returns of up to 400 percent within 30 days. Aaron was not charged with a crime, but witnesses testified that he helped promote the scheme and received a $20,000 finder’s fee—which the commission says he kept.
Aaron cooperated with investigators, secretly recording his conversations with Roper.
Prestige of Office
In its notice of formal proceedings, made public yesterday, the commission said Aaron used the prestige of his office to promote Westminster despite knowing or having reason to know of the fraud. Among those solicited, the commission said, was David Mugridge, a Fresno lawyer who was appearing before Aaron on cases and was on the indigent criminal defense panel of the court.
Aaron should have disclosed that he solicited funds from Mugridge, or recused himself from the lawyer’s cases, the CJP said. The commission also accused Aaron of improperly asking Mugridge for a personal loan.
Once Mugridge began to suspect that the investment wasn’t legitimate, the commission alleged, Aaron falsely told him that the “Feds” were going to allow Westminster to “roll-over one time,” allowing Mugridge and other local investors to realize a profit. Aaron’s purpose, the commission said, was “to obstruct or delay the federal investigation.”
Aaron similarly used false representations to discourage another investor from complaining to the authorities, the commission said, and spent so much time on the phone with Roper and his associates during work hours that it interfered with court business.
The judge’s attorney, Jerome Sapiro Jr. of San Francisco, said his client was a victim, not a promoter, and “made the mistake” of involving himself in order to help the investors, who included members of his church.
“The people made their own decisions” to invest, Sapiro said.
The attorney also accused Mugridge, who acted as attorney for the Fresno investors, of having exaggerated Aaron’s role. The judge “absolutely denies soliciting any loans” from Mugridge, Sapiro said.
The CJP also accused Aaron of having “consistently avoided” his financial obligations. The judge bounced checks, failed to pay personal property taxes on his boat and airplane, defaulted on a note secured by a second deed of trust just a month after he borrowed the money, and borrowed more than $30,000 from a local businessman without disclosing that he was in default on several loans and without paying any of it back despite promising to do so, the commission alleged.
He also bought a piano on credit, rescinded the purchase within 48 hours, but didn’t return the piano and didn’t pay the balance due until the day before a scheduled trial on the seller’s lawsuit, the commission said.
The commission also included in its notice one charge of non-financial-related misconduct. It claimed that on numerous occasions, while presiding over a drug court, the judge remanded defendants to custody because he concluded, after a “smell test” of the person’s hair or an examination of the person’s eyes, that they were using drugs.
Aaron would then have the defendant handcuffed and held for a day or so before being released without formal booking or arrest, the CJP said.
Aaron is presently scheduled to leave the bench in January 2003, since he did not file for election to a fifth term on the bench. Sapiro said the judge’s decision not to run was based partly on the fact that he will have qualified for a maximum pension and partially on the negative media coverage surrounding Roper’s trial last year.
Aaron was elected to the Kingsburg-Riverdale Justice Court in 1978, just three years after going to work for the District Attorney’s Office.
The jurist, who worked in business for a number of years before going into law practice, is a graduate of San Joaquin College of Law in Fresno. He became a municipal court judge when the justice courts in Fresno County were consolidated in 1994 and became a Fresno Superior Court judge when the county’s trial courts unified in 1998.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company