Tuesday, July 9, 2002
Fresno Superior Court Judge James Aaron Stipulates To Retirement, Is Publically Censured by CJP
By KIMBERLY EDDS, Staff Writer
Fresno Superior Court Judge James I. Aaron has agreed to step down from the bench in exchange for a public censure by the Commission on Judicial Performance and the promise of no further discipline for his involvement in a “dubious investment scheme” that included a lawyer who appeared regularly in his courtroom, the panel announced yesterday.
Aaron, 60, must retire from the bench five days from the decision or face additional charges, according to the stipulation. The judge stipulated to five of the six counts against him.
The CJP accused Aaron of improperly asking Fresno attorney David Mugridge for a personal loan, but dismissed the charge because a factual dispute about the incident could not be resolved without a hearing and the disposition would not change based on that count alone.
Charges were brought against Aaron last December — more than a year after Kenneth L. Roper and two others were sentenced to federal prison by U.S. District Judge Oliver Wanger for engineering what the judge called “a classic Ponzi scheme.”
Investors poured money into Westminster Financial Associates, with investments ranging from $125,000 to $250,000, in return for promised annual returns of up to 400 percent within 30 days.
Aaron was never charged with a crime, but witnesses at the Roper trial testified he helped promote the scheme and kept a $20,000 finders fee.
The commission said Aaron used the “prestige of judicial office” to promote the scheme despite knowing or having reason to know of the fraud. Among those solicited, the commission said, was Mugridge, who was appearing before Aaron on cases and was on the court’s indigent criminal defense panel.
Aaron solicited Mugridge during several conversations the pair had in chambers following appearances Mugridge had in front of Aaron, the commission said. During the conversations the two also discussed Aaron’s marital and financial problems and prayed together for resolutions.
Aaron should have disclosed that he solicited funds from Mugridge, or recused himself from the lawyer’s cases, the CJP said.
Once Mugridge began to suspect that the investment was improper, the commission alleged, Aaron untruthfully told him that the “Feds” were going to allow Westminster to “roll-over one time,” allowing Mugridge and other Fresno investors to realize a profit and that any complaint would hinder any local profit. Aaron’s representations, the commission said, were “to obstruct or delay the federal investigation.”
Aaron spent so much time on the phone with Roper and his colleagues during work hours that it interfered with his duties as a bench officer, the commission said.
The CJP also accused Aaron of having “consistently avoided” his financial obligations. The judge bounced checks, failed to pay personal property taxes on both 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 had failed to make good on several other loans and without paying any of it back despite promising to do so, the CJP alleged.
The only non-financial related charge against Aaron involved his presiding over drug court when he, on numerous occasions, would order defendants to his bench so he could conduct a “smell test” of the defendant’s hair or an examination of the person’s eyes to determine if the person was using drugs, the commission alleged. Aaron would then have the defendant handcuffed, booked and held for a day or so without ever going through the formal arrest procedures.
Aaron’s attorneys did not return calls for comment.
Aaron had been scheduled to leave the bench when his term expired in January. He had not filed papers to run for reelection.
Aaron was elected to the Kingsburg-Riverdale Justice Court in 1978, after just three years at the Fresno County District Attorney’s Office.
The judge, 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 he became a Fresno Superior Court judge when the county’s trial courts unified in 1998.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company