Every cause could use a hero or martyr. In Richard Fine, many Marina del Rey residents believe they have both.
A former taxpayer advocate attorney, Fine, 70, has been on a decades-long crusade fighting to expose what he alleges are illegal payments to Los Angeles County judges that ultimately harm the public’s benefit. His battle was halted temporarily when he was thrown in jail on a contempt of court charge by Superior Court Judge David Yaffe in 2009 after Fine refused to answer questions regarding his assets while representing the Marina Strand Colony II homeowners association in Marina del Rey that had brought legal action against a county development project at Del Rey Shores.
Fine spent approximately a year and a half in solitary confinement and his story made news nationally as well as internationally. A “Free Richard Fine” rally was held on April 20 outside the Los Angeles County jail by dozens of his supporters, and friends, family members and others rallied to his story, making him a cause celebré of sorts.
Eighteen months in jail has not dampened Fine’s fighting spirit, and he is as pugnacious as ever when it comes to exposing what he and others claim is a system rife with corruption that unduly influences jurists, rewards developers and disenfranchises citizens.
“I’m going to continue going forward with judicial reform and make sure that judges who receive this illegal money do not hear cases in the county,” Fine began in a recent interview with The Argonaut.
He said believing that he was on the right side of the law helped keep him focused on enduring his 18 months in solitary confinement. “I had a basic feeling that what I was doing was right and sooner or later I was going to win,” Fine said.
Fine said he also recalled a quote from Mohandas Gandhi that inspired him while he was in jail: “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Superior Court judges are paid $179,000 in base salary from the state as well as $57,000 from the county. Fine has long charged that the latter sum is essentially illegal and jurists can accept the money, but they should not preside over cases that deal with county development or planning initiatives.
On Nov. 12, 2008, the Fourth District Court of Appeals sided with him in a case brought by the conservative legal group Judicial Watch. The appellate court ruled in Sturgeon vs. County of Los Angeles that the payments were illegal. That decision was subsequently voided Dec. 12, 2009 by the state Legislature under Senate Bill X2 11, which Fine said also gave the judges retroactive immunity.
Fine sought to have Yaffe disqualified from hearing the Del Rey Shores case because of these county payments, and Yaffe refused to recuse himself. Shortly thereafter, Fine was ordered to pay $46,329 in sanctions to the developers and answer questions concerning his assets. When he refused, Yaffe cited him for contempt of court, and so the battle of wills between the jurist and the lawyer began.
Daniel Gottlieb, who was on the board of the Marina Colony Strand II, thinks that Fine was facing a steep uphill battle when he took on the county. “I think that the deck was stacked against him,” he said.
Prior to ordering Fine’s release from jail, Yaffe indicated that he questioned his antagonist’s mental status.
“His conduct is bizarre, and that fact alone must be considered by this court in performing its continuing duty to determine whether Fine’s continued confinement serves any useful purpose,” the judge wrote in his Sept. 17 judicial order. “Coercive confinement of a contemnor is only effective if the contemnor is capable of making a rational choice between the alternatives available to him.
“It is now likely that Fine is not capable of doing so. Fine’s continued incarceration is not likely to benefit the judgment creditor, and is only increasing its loss by requiring it to answer the court’s periodic inquiries as to the collectability of the judgment.”
Yaffe mentioned that county jails are overcrowded and that also played a factor in Fine’s release, as well as his belief that the attorney’s incarceration would discourage others from bringing actions against the court.
“Fine’s continued incarceration is a detriment to the public because Fine is using up jail space in an overcrowded jail, and may cause the release of persons who constitute a greater threat to the public than Fine does,” Yaffe wrote.
“By keeping him incarcerated for 18 months, the court has deterred others from defying its orders to the extent that it is possible to do so given the facts of this case. The sheriff is ordered to discontinue the incarceration of Fine for the purpose of coercing him to answer the questions put to him in a judgment debtor’s examination.”
Yaffe stepped down from the bench shortly after releasing Fine, a move that some of the attorney’s fans think vindicates him and his cause.
“In my eyes, (Yaffe) recognized that Richard was being held illegally,” said Leslie Dutton, producer of the Marina del Rey-based public affairs channel the Full Disclosure Network.
Asked if Yaffe’s resignation was vindication, Fine responded, “I don’t think that you can get a bigger victory than that.”
Fine has also sued the state bar, which disbarred him in 2009, for fraud on the court. “They knew the action was false and fraudulent,” the ex-attorney said.
Gottlieb was not surprised to hear of Fine’s disbarrment. “Powerful people often use the state bar to knock off their opponents,” he said.
John Rizzo, a 40-year Marina del Rey resident, counts himself as one of Fine’s admirers.
“It’s amazing to see a man who handles adversity the way that he does, who is steadfast in his beliefs and who is courageous in the way that he acts,” said Rizzo, who has been a plaintiff in various lawsuits against the county.
Fine believes some of his colleagues in the legal profession have not rallied to his cause because of what Yaffe wrote when he was released from jail.
“I think that they have been somewhat silent. I think they’ve been intimidated,” he said. “One can’t really expect them to take a stand.”
Some legal experts say the jury’s still out – so to speak – regarding Fine’s standing in the public eye as well as among his legal peers.
“Among a certain group, he’s become a celebrity,” Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, said in an interview with the Daily News. “I don’t think it has resonated in the mainstream of his profession or society.”
Daniel Brookman, a longtime Westside criminal defense lawyer, is familiar with Fine’s case. “I understand the broader allegations that he has leveled against the judges,” Brookman, who practices in Santa Monica, said. “He seems to be a very capable lawyer but I also understand that he can be a bit hard-headed and that resulted in his incarceration.”
Fine said the public can begin to institute judicial reform through the ballot box.
“The only way that we are going to change this is by voting judges out in the next election and putting pressure on district attorneys, attorneys general and Congress to take action,” Fine asserted.
Dutton, who has conducted several interviews with Fine, calls him “courageous and dedicated toward the rule of law” and admires him for “his tenacity to stand up against corruption.”
Fine, who does strategic consulting work, said he plans to seek reinstatement to the bar. “I’m stronger than ever and the cause is stronger than ever,” he said.
Brookman is not surprised to hear that Fine is still determined to pursue his crusade against county salaries collected by judges. “Now that he has been released and (Yaffe has retired), it has probably strengthened his resolve for his crusade for a cause that he believes in,” Brookman said.
Rizzo said Fine’s battles with the judiciary has made a number of people in Marina del Rey pay greater attention to the future development strategies that the county is planning.
“He’s made people here and all over the country realize what’s going on (in Marina del Rey),” he said.
Fine is considering a film documentary on his recent experiences with the judicial system and possibly a book deal. Despite his incarceration and his troubles with judges, he says he has nothing personal against them.
“The system is not corrupt, but the bottom line is it is inhabited by people who are taking illegal payments thereby making the operation of the system corrupt,” he alleged.
Fine insists that reform of the judiciary can become a reality, and he relies on a quote from the late anthropologist Margaret Mead that gives him inspiration to continue his quest:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”