By Miriam Raftery
April 25, 2014 (San Diego) – Judge Ronald Prager has been a Superior Court Judge for 26 years, with an unblemished record.
“I’ve handled more important cases and complex litigation than any other judge,” said Prager, who has presided over many of our region’s most high profile cases. He told ECM that he has been endorsed by all 125 Superior Court judges as well as Sheriff Bill Gore, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, the Public Defender, Deputy District Attorneys Association, the Lawyer’s Club, and San Diegans Against Crime, a crime victims’ rights group.
His opponent for Superior Court seat 9, Douglas James Crawford, faces suspension of his law license for advising opposing counsel of threats made by his client to instigate an IRS audit if settlement talks in a lawsuit were not commenced. He denies wrongdoing and has filed an appeal. He has also drawn criticism for racial remarks regarding an African-American judge and for offering free legal advice to white supremacist groups. In addition, an East County Magazine investigation reveals that Crawford has previously been sanctioned by the California 4th District Court of Appeal for “intentionally misleading” a court and bank regarding his mother’s death. Moreover, the court found that Crawford claimed to represent his mother’s estate after allowing his license to practice law to become inactive.
But Crawford, in a detailed response sent to ECM, has denied wrongdoing and in turn, accused his opponent, Judge Prager of “favoritism” and “corruption.”
He added,“I believe that for a civilized society to flourish its citizens must have confidence that the laws will be applied equally and fairly to all regardless of discriminatory factors or favoritism. My opponent is outcome determinative, in that his decisions are based on favoritism, not the law which completely undermines the public’s confidence in our non-violent dispute resolution system.”
Judge Prager told ECM that he does not want to “dignify” Crawford’s vague allegations but did confirm that contrary to Crawford’s insinuations, he has never ruled on a case in which he had any financial interest.
He added that canons of ethics for attorney and judges prohibit making knowingly false statements. “There are consequences for that. Judge Prager indicated that he expects Crawford’s unsubstantiated allegations of corruption will likely be investigated by the State Bar Association if Crawford loses the election, or by the Commission on Judicial Performance if he wins.
Court sanction over Crawford’s handling of mother’s death notification
Crawford informed the 4th District Court of Appeals that his mother, Sheila Teager “Ninon” Crawford, had a stroke, but failed to disclose when she died, providing an inaccurate address as he sought to change the venue from Ventura to San Diego, the court decision states.
Crawford was sanctioned $14,500 by the court, which concluded, “Certainly the failure to timely disclose Mrs. Crawford’s death confirms the court’s conclusion that Crawford intentionally obfuscated her ‘current status.’” Moreover, the ruling stated, “Accordingly the court finds by clear and convincing evidence that Crawford’s choice of venue in San Diego was not made in good faith. Crawford’s behavior throughout this litigation has been unreasonable and with the apparent intent to cause the maximum inconvenience to the court and opposing counsel. Such conduct is not worthy of an officer of the court.”
Regarding the court’s finding that he misled the court about his mother’s death intentionally, Crawford responded, “I did not make any misrepresentations at any time, in any regard.” He further claimed, “The Appellate opinion did not state why I was sanctioned, contrary to requirements of the California Rules of Court. The Appellate Court was supposed to cite the alleged misconduct so I could correct my behavior in the future, but they did not. Moreover, procedurally J.P. Morgan Chase needed to bring any request for sanctions by a separate noticed motion, not by requesting sanctions in its responsive brief, which they did not bring a separate motion. If sanctions were to be issued sua sponte (of its own accord) by the Appellate Court, the Court needed to provide notice that it was considering sanctions, which they did not.”
He added that California civil law relieves an attorney of obligations for a client after the client dies and adds that he none-the-less filed a request for dismissal that was denied. He adds, “Most importantly, I was mourning the death of my mother, arranging for her funeral, etc., when did the Court expect me to notify them? Was I supposed to notify the Court a day after she died, a week later and, more importantly how? There simply are no legal mechanisms for notifying the Court of the death of a client or litigant. “
However, the court observed that Crawford omitted mention of his mother’s death when he filed an ex parte application before a motion to transfer a hearing to San Diego. “Not only did the ex parte application fail to mention Ninon’s death more than two months prior, its wording implied that she was still alive,” the court noted in its ruling.
Crawford did not provide an explanation for why his law license became inactive at that time, but said all written submissions to the court were completed before he went on inactive status on January 28, 2013. “The only action I took as an inactive attorney before the Appellate Court was my Pro Per appearance as a co-Appellant on the appeal at oral argument,” he stated.
State bar disciplinary action over IRS audit threat
KPBS has reported recently that Crawford is currently facing disciplinary suspension by the State Bar, which found he broke ethical rules by sending a letter to opposing counsel in which he stated that his client threatened to initiate an IRS audit against the opposing parties unless settlement talks began promptly. The Bar imposed a 90-day suspension and 2 year probationary period, reasoning that attorneys are prohibited from making threats.
Crawford is appealing the 90-day suspension and two year probationary period.
He told ECM that Rules of Professional Responsibility for attorneys require notification of opposing counsel of any offer made by a client. Moreover, he noted that while Rule 5-100 prohibits attorneys from threatening to obtain an advantage, there is no such prohibition against litigants making threats to obtain an advantage. Moreover, he states, “specific language of Rule 5-100 was notably changed in 1990, completely eliminating any liability to an attorney that “participates” in communicating a threat made by a client to the attorney.”
He said he is filing an appeal based on the above argument, and also because he asserts that the State Bar Court failed to provide a fair and impartial State Bar Court Judge to preside over the Early Neutral Evaluation Conference ( ENEC) hearing. After his hearing, he learned that the State Bar Court Judge, Richard Patel, was married to State Bar Investigator Leslie Patel.
“Leslie Patel was the primary investigator for the State Bar in bringing charges against me and prepared the case for the State Bar’s prosecution” Crawford stated. “It is akin to a Superior Court judge presiding over a criminal matter in a case wherein the spouse was the District Attorney’s Investigator on the case.”
He contends that the denial of a fair and impartial State Bar Court Judge to preside over the ENEC requires the reversal of Trial Court proceedings and the deletion of the allegations from the State Bar website, with proceedings to start anew. According to Crawford, this meant the State Bar could bring only one charge, which was closed on November 9, 2010. (See State Bar Nov. 2010 correspondence.)
Crawford observed that the statute of limitations for bringing a count against an attorney is three years, adding, “No one in the history of the State Bar of California has ever been suspended for a mere violation of Rule 5-100, so the State Bar tucked away the allegation until they could boot-strap it with two other charges, akin to publicly smearing my name based on false and misleading information to ensure the Judge Prager gets re-elected. “ The State Bar lost on two “trumped up charges” he stated, adding that the one remaining count is one the Bar took a pass on in 2010 but for which he now faces discipline.“The State Bar recommended the 90 day suspension if I was found culpable of all three counts and the State Bar Court judge erroneously adopted that finding,” he maintains.
The UT San Diego reports that Crawford sought to disqualify San Diego Superior Court Judge Randa Trapp, who is African-American, from hearing the same case for which he faces suspension over the IRS threat. He contended that Trapp, past president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) had a “racist bias and prejudice against everyone.”
The NAACP in fact fights discrimination against people of all races, local President Lei-Chala Wilson has stated.
Crawford further stated in his filing that he feared Trapp would be biased against him because he is known in the legal community for providing free legal advice to white supremacists.
In his response to ECM, Crawford did not address his efforts to oust Trapp from a case, though a report in another media outlet indicates he has apologized to the judge.
Crawford did, however, provide these comments to clarify his representation of white supremacists. “I provide free legal advice to everyone that needs it and that has a substantive legal issue that is worthy of my attention. I, in no way, share their views, but I respect their right to express it,” Crawford stated. He noted that David Goldberger, a Jewish Attorney for the ACLU, successfully represented the Nationalist Socialist Party of America or Nazis in their quest to march in Skokie Illinois.
Crawford concluded, “Mr. Goldberger believed, as I believe, that to protect our treasured right of free speech one must protect the rights of those that speak offensively even if we do not believe or support the content of their message. In short, I believe that everyone has a 1st Amendment right to display their ignorance, hate or love of flowers, dogs, pizza or people. I am more concerned by silence and repression than expression.”
In a follow-up e-mail, he added, “I have provided free legal advice to all races, including African-Americans. I do not see race.”
Crawford has been a member of the State Bar Association since 1999 and obtained his law degree from Cal Western School of Law in San Diego. According to a Los Angeles Times story, he once sued his former law school alleging he received an inadequate education, though he did pass the bar exam on the first try.
His experience appears thin for a judicial candidate; typically candidates have extensive records as prosecutors or defense attorneys. He is listed as an “attorney/recycler” on the Registrar of Voters website. Crawford said he has not yet set up a campaign website and did not provide his ballot statement when asked. He is registered as a patent attorney.
Crawford told ECM that he has a track record of uncovering judicial corruption “having saved the City of San Diego $95 million dollars by outing Judge Vincent DiFiglia’s corrupt ruling on Border Business Park V. City of San Diego…by supplying Latham & Watkins the information and legal strategy necessary to disqualify Judge Di Figlia and overturn his ridiculous rulings.”
He provided a copy of his Di Figlia correspondence that was published in the San Diego Union-Tribune. Judge Di Figlia was later admonished by the Commission on Judicial Performance for failing to disclose a friendship with Vincent Bortolotta Jr. to opposing counsel in the case of Border Business Park, Inc. v. City of San Diego. Bartolotta, who represented plaintiffs in the case before Di Figlia, also picked up golf tabs for the Judge.
Crawford criticized Prager’s ruling in another city case, Browning v. City of San Diego, in which Prager upheld a hotel tax to fund the convention center without a vote of the people. He indicated Prager’s ruling cited two 1920 cases and claims that one of those "held that charter cities do not have supremacy over matters of State law concern.” He noted some similar names in the case and inferred Prager may have had some ulterior motive, but provided no evidence to document his contention.
Asked about the case, Prager told ECM firmly, “I had no financial interest in that case,” which amounted to a “bond validation measure,” he added. He said that on any given case, lawyers often argue that reasoning is incorrect. But he asserted that his long experience through the years, lack of disciplinary action and endorsement by judges and leaders in law enforcement and the legal community prove that he is the most qualified candidate.
“The assignment I have, civil independent calendaring, is considered a prestigious and challenging assignment. I’ve been in that for 20 years,” he added. He was selected by California’s Chief Justice to oversee more than 50 tobacco class action lawsuits statewide and approved a special master’s $28 million settlement agreement, including a high-profile case in which he found that R.J. Reynolds tobacco company was targeting youths in advertisements.
Judge Prager is a graduate of the Gould School of Law at the University of Southern California. He is also a former prosecutor, Deputy Attorney General and Deputy District Attorney. His campaign website is here: http://www.pragerforjudge.com/home.html . He has never faced any disciplinary actions.
Judge Prager has made rulings in numerous high profile cases among them:
He ruled on April 24, 2014 that there was not enough evidence to block a casino at the Jamul Indian Village, in a complaint filed by Native American families who contended that their ancestors’ graves were desecrated.
In 2013, he upheld the hotel room tax to fund expansion of the San Diego convention center.
In 2011 he ruled that landlords could evict medical marijuana dispensaries, which were illegal under city zoning laws.
In 2010, he ruled in favor of the Chaparral Institute, which sought to force the county to conduct environmental review before clearing thousands of trees near homes in Julian.
In 2006, he approved a nearly $1.8-billion settlement with Sempra Energy over allegations that it conspired to restrict natural gas supplies and raise prices during the state's energy crisis. California’s Attorney General objected to the settlement.
In a related matter involving energy market manipulation allegations during the energy crisis, Prager compelled 27 energy companies to turn over tapes of their natural gas traders' conversations.
He served as statewide trial coordination judge in numerous tobacco class action cases, approving a $26 billion California settlement with big tobacco companies. He also found R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company violated a settlement agreement by targeting youths in tobacco advertising and upheld the constitutionality of a voter initiated adding a 75 cents a pack cigarette tax for programs to help children.
In addition, Judge Prager presided over a class action case resulting in more than a $1 billion settlement for violation of California anti-trust laws on a gas pipeline case.