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Californian Judicial Political Independence Or Not

Why Was Bill Simon, GOP Candidate For Governor Of California, So Sure His "Business Fraud" Jury Verdict Would Be Overturned?
A BuzzFlash Editorial
September 25, 2002

The California Superior Court judge, who took the unusual step of overturning a $78 million dollar "business fraud" jury verdict against Bill Simon's company, gave $1000 in the 1998 election cycle to Dan Lungren, the Republican candidate for Governor at that time. Michele Chalfant, the wife of James C. Chalfant, the Superior Court Judge who "cleared" Simon, gave $750 during the same period to Lungren.

Canon 2 of the California Code of Judicial Ethics imposes on judicial officers the duty to "act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary." Likewise, Canon 5 cautions judges to "avoid political activity that may create the appearance of political bias or impropriety. Judicial independence and impartiality should dictate the conduct of judges…." Given that in 1998 Lungren lost to Gray Davis, whom Bill Simon faces in the 2002 California race for Governor, the Chalfant political donations might raise some questions for the public as to whether, with respect to this trial and post-trial proceedings, Judge Chalfant possessed the independence and impartiality demanded by the Canons.

Chalfant, after serving in the LA Municipal Court, was appointed to the Superior Court bench by former California Governor Pete Wilson in 1998. Chalfant and his wife also contributed to Wilson's campaign fund.

The $78 million dollar judgment against William Simon and Sons created a formidable stumbling block for the GOP candidate, at a time in July when George W. Bush's Harken problems and Dick Cheney's Halliburton business practices were being widely questioned.

Bush visited California shortly after the jury verdict, and said that he had been assured by Simon that the embarrassing conviction would be overturned. In fact, after Simon was "politically saved" by Judge Chalfant's ruling, the Los Angeles Times reported:

"At the White House, spokeswoman Anne Womack said President Bush 'has supported Bill Simon's candidacy all along ... and all along took Bill Simon at his word that the verdict would be thrown out.'"
(See: http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/la-me-simon13sep13005048.story)

BuzzFlash is not claiming knowledge of any direct assurance that Judge Chalfant gave Simon or anyone representing Simon about how he would rule on the case. BuzzFlash is also not claiming that the Judge threw out the business fraud jury verdict against Simon on anything other than the merits. We can only report the contributions with the hope that the matter will be further investigated.

According to the California Rules of Court, Code of Judicial Ethics:

" CANON 5. A JUDGE OR JUDICIAL CANDIDATE * SHALL REFRAIN FROM INAPPROPRIATE POLITICAL ACTIVITY

Political Organizations. Judges and candidates * for judicial office shall not

personally solicit funds for a political organization * or nonjudicial candidate; * or make contributions to a political party or political organization * or to a nonjudicial candidate in excess of five hundred dollars in any calendar year per political party or political organization * or candidate,* or in excess of an aggregate of one thousand dollars in any calendar year for all political parties or political organizations * or nonjudicial candidates.*


Although members of the judge's family * are not subject to the provisions of this Code, a judge shall not avoid compliance with this Code by making contributions through a spouse or other family member."

Judge Chalfant may have given Dan Lungren $1,000 in 1998, although the contribution records do not have a date after Chalfant's first $500 contribution to Lungren. (It is possible that $500 was given in 1997 and $500 in 1998.) Chalfant also gave $250 to another Republican in 1998. If the $1000 total to Lungren was given in 1998, Chalfant could have violated the California Code of Judicial Ethics. However, only a hand-audit of Lungren's contributions might reveal the exact date of the first $500 contribution.

As for Michele Chalfant's contributions to Lungren and other Republicans in 1998, it would be difficult to prove that Mrs. Chalfant gave those contributions at the behest of her husband.

So BuzzFlash can only say that a Republican-appointed Judge with a history of giving to Republican Gubernatorial candidates (Simon's campaign contributions are not electronically available as of this date) -- and other Republican candidates -- reversed a jury verdict against the 2002 Republican candidate for Governor of California. Is that illegal? No. Does it raise questions about impartiality? Yes.

After Judge Chalfant threw out the jury verdict against Simon, the man whose company was convicted of business fraud said: "Today is a new beginning for our campaign. Now the people of California will get the kind of campaign, at least from me, they deserve."

But within a week, Simon's company was again in a courtroom: "The latest chapter in GOP gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon's legal battles opened Tuesday in a Washington courtroom, as the U.S. Justice Department argued that mismanagement and a slowing economy caused the 1993 collapse of a California thrift in which Simon's family invested." (See:
http://www.sacbee.com/content/politics/ca/election/story/4447844p-5468848c.html)

And the San Jose Mercury News detailed how Simon's family firm engaged in an Enron-style accounting technique that the IRS calls fraud, in a suit against the firm that sold Simon the strategy: "Gubernatorial candidate Bill Simon employed an aggressive accounting technique using an offshore corporation to create paper losses that may have saved him millions of dollars in taxes, according to documents obtained by the Mercury News." (See: http://www.bayarea.com/mld/mercurynews/4089105.htm)

Could the Grand Hypocrisy Party (GHP) find a worthier candidate for California governor than Bill Simon? We think not.

And if Dick Cheney decides not to run for Vice-president again, Simon would make the perfect "CEO" Vice-president in the Bush tradition of unseemly business practices.

And, of course, there might just be a spot for Judge Chalfant on the federal bench.

Stranger things have happened, haven't they?

A BuzzFlash Editorial

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