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Retired Probate Judge Invokes Fifth Amendment Daily Journal - Nov 21, 2001
By Jason W. Armstrong
Daily Journal Staff Writer

RIVERSIDE - Retired Riverside Judge William H. Sullivan - whose handling of conservatorship cases while a probate judge is under scrutiny by the Commission on Judicial Performance - has declined to respond to the accusations, invoking the Fifth Amendment.

Sullivan presided over most of Riverside Countyís probate cases until his retirement in 1999. The commission has accused him of engaging "in a pattern of improper financial dealings and fiduciary activities while on the bench."

In his Nov. 15 response to the commission, Sullivan "respectfully invokes his privilege against self-incrimination" under the Constitution.

Edward P. George Jr., Sullivanís lawyer, said Sullivan declined to respond to the commissionís allegations to protect himself from any investigations that may be proceeding.

"I donít know if there is a continuing investigation in this matter, and we wanted to give him all the protection that the law allows," George said.

George has said that Sullivan denies the allegations and had a reputation on the bench as a "highly respected and dedicated Superior Court judge."

The commission filed its complaint Nov. 1, accusing Sullivan of engaging in a conflict of interest by acting as a trustee in cases over which he presided. In one instance, the commission alleges the judge purchased a home that was part of a probate case he heard - buying it without giving anyone else a chance to bid on it.

In addition, the judge allegedly made hundreds of thousands of dollars in unsecured and unapproved loans to himself from trust funds in cases he handled as a judge. He failed to pay the loans back in a timely manner, the commission contends.

In another case over which Sullivan presided, he allegedly loaned himself $186,000 from a trust account, failed to pay the money back on time and skimmed several thousand dollars from financial transactions involving the trust.

Sullivan is charged with willful misconduct in office, conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute, and improper action under the section of the state constitution that provides for censure or public or private admonishment.

He has not been criminally charged in connection with the conservatorship scandal.

The case arose in 1999 when San Francisco probate attorney Barbara Jagiello alleged in a report to Riverside County that Sullivan wrongfully benefited from trust funds and showed favoritism to West Coast Conservatorships. Jagielloís report also included allegations against the companyís owner and lawyer, who eventually were convicted of crimes stemming from the embezzlement of more than $1 million from the estates of ill and elderly people.

In an investigative report, Jagiello accused the judge of purchasing a home before it was put on the market from a person whose conservatorship his court supervised and of referring cases to the owner of West Coast Conservatorships, Bonnie Cambalik.

Cambalik and others linked to the scandal are serving lengthy prison terms for embezzlement, perjury and fraud.

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[Queries by Marc Hankin (1) Why did none of the lawyers or professional conservators speak out condemning the flagrant corruption of the Riverside court by Judge Sullivan and his business associates over the course of years? (2) Did they fear that the judge might cut their fees to punish them, if they spoke out? (3) Doesn't this suggest that we need a more objective way of determining fees, so that this blemish (of silence) on the Probate community does not occur again? ]

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Judge Pleads Guilty in Probate Scandal Daily Journal - Mar 28, 2002

By Jason W. Armstrong

Daily Journal Staff Writer    DAILY JOURNAL ARTICLE

http//www.dailyjournal.com © The Daily Journal Corporation. All rights reserved.

RIVERSIDE - Retired Riverside County Judge William H. Sullivan pleaded guilty Wednesday to seven misdemeanor charges of making improper financial dealings in probate cases, capping a massive conservatorship scandal in which two others have been implicated.

Deputy District Attorney Angel Bermudez said Sullivan's plea ends prosecutors' "exhaustive" investigation into the dealings of a conservatorship company that looted more than $1 million from the estates of poor and sick people.

"This culminates it," Bermudez said. "We spent three years going through incredible amounts of documents and court records and [Sullivan's] personal finances."

Sullivan pleaded guilty to charges of failing to report money that he took from his trust cases and purchasing a house in one of his conservatorship cases without giving other bidders a chance to buy it. People v. Sullivan, RIM418456 (Riverside Super. Ct., filed March 27, 2002).

Judge Russell Schooling, who took Sullivan's pleas Wednesday, ordered the former jurist to pay $27,000 in fines and perform 1,000 hours of community service. [Comment by Marc Hankin:  Rough punishment for judges, isn't it?  Steal well more than $1 million, but pay only $27,000 in fines, perform 1,000 hours of pleasant community service, and get off otherwise scot free!  Would the prosecutors would treat any other criminal just as harshly, for stealing the life savings of demented elderly people?]

Sullivan's guilty pleas make him ineligible for public office, prosecutors said. [Comment by Marc Hankin:   Aren't the prosecutors going too far with this punishment?  Would they be as harsh if the thief were a plaintiff's lawyer?]

Meanwhile, the Commission on Judicial Performance is considering whether Sullivan, 73, engaged "in a pattern of improper financial dealing while on the bench."

Riverside sole practitioner Jay Grossman, who represents Sullivan in the criminal case, could not be reached for comment.

Sullivan, who was assigned all of Riverside County's probate cases until he retired three years ago, came under fire in early 1999 for the way he handled his conservatorship cases. San Francisco attorney Barbara Jagiello submitted an investigative report to the Riverside district attorney's office, alleging that Sullivan wrongfully benefited from trust funds and showed favoritism to West Coast Conservatorships - the company that skimmed money from the estates of ill and elderly people.

In the wake of Jagiello's report and a district attorney investigation, Bonnie Cambalik, owner of West Coast Conservatorships, was sentenced in 2000 to 26 years in prison for defrauding conservatees. Her lawyer, Michael Molloy, was sentenced last year to more than 16 years in prison for advising Cambalik in the thefts.

Prosecutors' charges against Sullivan mirror some of the offenses mentioned in the state judicial commission's complaint against him. Both note his handling of the conservatorship of Riverside resident Harry Dostal.

Prosecutors said that Sullivan purchased a home from Dostal, "advancing the date of the sale" so no one else would have a chance to bid on it.

Prosecutors and the commission also faulted Sullivan's handling of the estate of Riverside resident Olga Bye. As an attorney, Sullivan witnessed the signing of Bye's will eight months before he became a Superior Court judge. He agreed to be backup executor to John Neblett, a retired Riverside County judge, in 1988.

Sullivan took over the trust after Neblett resigned in 1991 and remained trustee while on the bench, illegally presiding over trust accountings and accepting fees from the trust, prosecutors contend.

The Commission on Judicial Performance called off a hearing on its complaint against Sullivan last week. [Comment by Marc Hankin:   Well, at least the Commission on Judicial Performance had the good sense to not go too far in punishing this jurist who happened to make a few mistakes.]

Long Beach attorney Edward George, who represents the former judge in the matter involving the commission, said the judicial watchdog agency is reviewing a settlement offer submitted by Sullivan.

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[Queries by Marc Hankin (1) Why did none of the lawyers or professional conservators speak out condemning the flagrant corruption of the Riverside court by Judge Sullivan and his business associates over the course of years? (2) Did they fear that the judge might cut their fees to punish them, if they spoke out? (3) Doesn't this suggest that we need a more objective way of determining fees, so that this blemish (of silence) on the Probate community does not occur again? ]

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LOS ANGELES COUNTY PROBATE COURT PUNISHES LAWYER WHO SPEAKS OUT:  The Court of Appeal for the Second District, issued an unpublished decision, in Conservatorship of Feist, reversing Judge Robert M. Letteau.  The reversal was based on Judge Letteau's "clear" and "patent"  "abuse of discretion."  The Court of Appeal found that Judge Letteau's decision was the product of a "palpable animosity," which was the product of Letteau's taking offense at Hankin's "outspoken" "commentary" on probate court practices.   Hankin's commentary contended that probate court practices deprive elder abuse victims," who are not affluent, of the protection that the courts have a responsibility provide (to them) from elder abuse.
    The Second District determined that: (1) Judge Letteau cut Hankin's fees (to 1/4 of Hankin's fee request) to punish Hankin for making that contention, and  (2) Hankin under-billed the Fiest Conservatorship (by charging for only 11 out of 21 hearings).  
   
The Second District declined to publish the decision, keeping the Judge's misconduct essentially a private matter.  Flagrant and willful misconduct by a lawyer is published and the lawyer is punished.  A Judge should be held to an even higher standard than a lawyer.  It is therefore disappointing that flagrant and willful misconduct by a judge is swept under the rug by an unpublished appellate decision, without any public rebuke.  The Second District's decision, to sweep the abuse of power under the rug, conveys to lawyers the message that it behooves lawyers to stay in a judge's good graces, because there is no downside for a judge who elects to misuse his or her authority.  Sadly, the bottom-line message conveyed is that it behooves lawyers instead to extol the beauty of the Emperor's clothing, and the wisdom justice and mercy of the court's operations, rather than point out the failures that need correction.

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