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Victoria Fine Headshot

My Dad Tried to Right a Wrong, Now He's Behind Bars Unjustly

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As an editor at Huffington Post Impact, I have the honor of reporting daily the generous acts of others and the devastating issues that our communities have yet to address sufficiently to make this world a safe and healthy place for everyone.

I empathize with the subjects of our articles on a very personal level. My own parents are uninsured, facing foreclosure of their house, and my father is unjustly in jail. All because of his compulsion to help others.

Many of you may be familiar with California's budget mess. Around the state, parks are being closed, tuition hiked and state workers laid off in an attempt to salvage a very bad financial situation, one that is rife with misuse of funds and, in some cases, corruption. My father is a respected lawyer and has, for the last decade, dedicated his career to retrieving as much of these wrongly funneled funds back to taxpayers like you and me.

He is 69 years old, (he turns 70 on the Friday after next) and is known for his dapper bow ties and for seeing the world in strict terms of right and wrong. And since March, he has been taken a political prisoner of the L.A. County Jail System.

Richard I. Fine and Victoria Fine

In a country that prides itself on its adherence to the rule of law, my father has been in solitary confinement for more than nine months, deprived initially of paper, pen and telephone, without any legal charges being filed or indication of length of his incarceration. His crime? His belief that $300 million dollars in taxpayer money should be legally spent. And suggesting that Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge David P. Yaffe had violated state law by accepting bribes from a party before him in court -- namely, Los Angeles County. My father is being held in contempt of court by the judge he has embarrassed.

Every day, an uncountable number of people are unjustly held in prison for crimes they have not committed. Most of these people are too poor or too ill-connected to find advocates for their cause. They suffer in silence, and their families are torn apart in the aftermath of their incarceration. But my father is a first-generation American who, from sheer hard work, rose to found the first municipal antitrust division in the United States in Los Angeles and has served as a diplomat for Norway for the last 14 years. I never believed that a man like my dad could be in the same situation. And yet, here we are, my mother and me, sorting foreclosure papers while my dad waits in his jail cell for someone to recognize the ridiculousness of this affair.

What could have led a respected 69-year-old antitrust lawyer to nine months of solitary confinement?

On March 4, my father was arguing a case on behalf of a group of homeowners in Marina Del Rey. The case piggybacked on another case of his that was gaining some attention by local media, in which my father was representing a group of environmentalists who wanted to stop further development in the neighborhood of Playa Vista in Los Angeles. The city had allowed new homes to be built on methane gas deposits with allegedly faulty safety monitoring systems. In several of these cases, my father alleged that the county was selling taxpayer-owned land for rock-bottom prices in return for campaign donations.

These are the kinds of cases most lawyers don't want to take on. But my father believed that justice would be served to normal people who wanted houses that were safe to live in and their tax money to go toward sound investments.

His cases kept getting dismissed for nonsensical and strange reasons and it wasn't surprising to find out that the judges my dad was going up against had a very good reason to shoot down his arguments on behalf of homeowners and taxpayers. They were being paid off.

On that day in court, my father brought forth the argument that Judge Yaffe couldn't give an impartial ruling on his case against the county of Los Angeles because, like other L.A. Superior Court judges, Yaffe had drawn his salary not only from the state of California but also from Los Angeles County. Judges receive $46,436 in annual bonuses from the county, on top of a handsome salary of $178,789 from the state. The total compensation of $225,225 a year exceeds the pay of even Chief Justice John Roberts, who earns $217,000 a year.

The payments, my father maintained, were illegal under a 1997 state law that held that the state was solely responsible for paying the salaries of trial court judges. Just last year, California's Court of Appeals ruled the practice of double-dipping unconstitutional. In addition, my father noted that Judge Yaffe, like others, had failed to report this extra income in state financial disclosure statements, which also is a violation of law. How, my father asked, could a judge receiving an illegal annual bonus from the county render an objective judgment in a case involving the county?

Remember, this is $300 million we're talking about here. California's school bus system or more currently, California's colleges could have used some of the more than $300 million that Los Angeles County taxpayers have spent footing the costs of these illegal bonuses to judges.

But just as much of an issue for my father as the taxpayers' loss is the conflict of interest created by double-dipping. In a brief to the court, my father pointed out that in all cases brought over a three-year period by citizens against Los Angeles County, judges ruled against the citizens. It could reasonably be expected that the county would prevail most of the time, but it is a stretch to assume that a court should find that government is right all the time.

To be clear, many judges in the United States are paid by their county without suspicion of bias. What differentiates this circumstance is that Los Angeles judges do not publicly disclose that they receive two paychecks in state-mandated statements. Our city residents have no way of protecting themselves against judicial bias if they bring a case against L.A. county in front of these judges.

My father's incarceration appears indefinite. Judge Yaffe has said he would be freed if he signs a personal financial statement (so that the judge could order a fine) and accept disbarment without further options for recourse. This would leave my father, already financially ruined from this debacle, without hope of further employment in his career choice of 40 years for the remainder of his life.

Why would my father jeopardize his career and livelihood over a mere pay issue? It is not in his nature to close his eyes to what he regards as injustice. He believes that justice should prevail over insider politics. To him, the taxpayers are a bunch of Davids, facing a government Goliath who was supposed to protect them. He feels obligated to seek a hearing for his clients before a court without a conflict of interest.

In the face of this, Judge Yaffe is using coercive detention to stifle his dissent.

Richard I. Fine and Family

My father, my mother and me, Christmas 2006

In the meantime, the whole affair has ruined my family. My parents have been left with nothing, their house foreclosed on, their health insurance, due to age and stress, revoked. Their pleas ignored.

The only thing that hasn't been ignored, in a strange ironic twist, is the pay issue itself. As of late November, L.A. County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich revoked these illegal judicial benefits for new judges and has retroactively made the bonuses already paid out to judges legal. (That means that until November 23 of this year, the payments were officially recognized as illegal.)

Despite this, my father remains in jail. His request for release is ''under consideration'' but there's no deadline for courts to make a decision on his case. My father may very well have to face his birthday in a jail cell while he, and we, await the scrutiny and resolution that his situation deserves.

Every day at Impact, I work in the hopes that injustices will be given the attention they're entitled to. I hope that today, as my father faces a biased and unsympathetic court, you will keep this small injustice in mind and share his story with the people you know so that he can one day return to championing the causes of others.

You can learn more about my father's situation and how you can help on his supporters' site.