Federal prosecutors say Jose Lopez Jr. turned ticket fixing into a profitable side business during an otherwise strong career as an Orange County Superior Court clerk, running a network that collected bribes to tweak more than 1,000 traffic cases over a five-year stretch.
A side effect, prosecutors added, was that Lopez, sometimes known as “Primo,” made local roads less safe and damaged the reputation of the local courthouse.
“Some of these cases involved drunk driving, which is a very serious charge and the individuals involved in those cases were not held accountable,” U.S. Attorney Eileen M. Decker said Wednesday.
“We want the public to know that we take this very seriously. Nothing is more important than the integrity of our judicial system.”
Federal agents arrested Lopez, 38, before sunrise Wednesday at his Anaheim home, near a Mexican restaurant he started with money prosecutors say he collected as a ticket fixer.
Federal agents also arrested 10 of Lopez’s 11 alleged “recruiters,” people who worked outside of the courthouse who went to car and truck clubs, and to Craigslist, to spread the word that, for a fee, tickets processed in Orange County Superior Court could be tweaked in the driver’s favor.
Lopez and 10 of his alleged accomplices pleaded not guilty at their arraignment late Wednesday.
Investigators have been looking into the alleged ticket-fixing network since at least early 2015, when hundreds of seemingly resolved traffic cases were reopened by local judges. Many plea deals were reversed at that time, and other drivers were ordered to pay new fines.
People who paid the bribes – many non-English speakers from countries where ticket fixing sometimes involves bureaucrats or police – were solicited directly by Lopez or by a recruiter, according to a 69-page indictment released Wednesday by federal prosecutors.
Prosecutors believe that hundreds of people dodged jail time, paid lower fees or otherwise received reduced punishment after Lopez tampered with computerized documents while working as a clerk.
In all, the network touched 1,034 cases, including 69 charges of misdemeanor DUI and 160 other misdemeanor charges; Lopez charged up to $8,000 to fix a case, according to the indictment.
Lopez’s attorney, Brian Gurwitz, declined to comment on the specific allegations, but offered a general apology on behalf of his client after Lopez was arraigned in front of family members and others.
“He has a great deal of remorse for both the Orange County Superior Court and his family,” Gurwitz said of Lopez.
U.S. District Magistrate Judge Karen E. Scott set Lopez’s bail at $50,000. Bail for the other defendants ranged from $15,000 to $40,000. All were ordered to turn over their passports and avoid talking to others involved in the investigation.
Federal prosecutors say they believe they have found all of the tampered cases. Decker said the court has reopened and reviewed all of them.
Prosecutors said Lopez, who was promoted at least twice after being hired by the county in 2008, tweaked computer records to make it appear that defendants had paid fees or performed the required community service. In some cases, he is accused of forging prosecutor signatures.
In some drunken driving cases, prosecutors said Lopez falsified records to indicate that a defendant had pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of reckless driving. He also is accused of changing records to make it appear that second-time DUI offenders had served mandatory jail time when they had not.
It’s unknown if any of those cases involve drivers who went on to be arrested for another DUI or other traffic violation.
The FBI probe was kicked off after a courtroom employee noticed a single document was missing; the file contained the clerk’s employee ID. Soon, other DUIs and other traffic cases tied to Lopez were inspected.
Court officials on Wednesday said every case now reflects its proper outcome.
“The integrity of the court, its records, and personnel are paramount,” wrote Gwen Vieau, a spokeswoman for Orange County Superior Court, in a prepared statement.
“The court has spent countless hours refining its auditing practices and redesigning its software to ensure that any attempt to improperly modify court records will immediately come to the attention of a supervisor.”
Lopez used the alleged bribe money – the amount is still undetermined – to fund vacations abroad, trips to Las Vegas, and the opening of a Mexican restaurant in Garden Grove, prosecutors said.
Arne Gjertsen, who lives across the street from Lopez, said he was awakened about 5:45 a.m. Wednesday when federal agents in at least a half-dozen black SUVs pulled up in front of Lopez’s home. The officers approached the house and began shouting for Lopez to open the door, Gjertsen said. A short time later, Lopez surrendered peacefully.
Prosecutors said Lopez and several of his co-defendants attempted to persuade witnesses to lie about the scheme when questioned by authorities.
In the 38-count indictment, Lopez and the alleged recruiters are charged with participating in a conspiracy to violate the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in federal prison.
Lopez is also charged with bribery and money laundering, which carry a maximum of 30 years in prison, prosecutors said. Lopez no longer is an employee of the county, but it’s unclear when he was dismissed.
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