State authorities on Tuesday accused a Merced County judge of concealing $250,000 in payments he received from his former law partners over a four-year period while he was on the bench.
The California Commission on Judicial Performance on Tuesday issued a public statement accusing Judge Marc A. Garcia, 46, of violating the state Code of Judicial Ethics.
The statement claims he concealed the payments from Merced Defense Associates, failed to disclose the payments on his Statements of Economic Interest and failed to disqualify himself or disclose the payments when MDA attorneys appeared before him in court between 2009 and 2012.
Victoria B. Henley, director-chief counsel for the commission, said no hearings have been scheduled and that Garcia has until March 25 to formally respond to the allegations.
The commission will eventually conduct a formal hearing and, if the allegations are found to be true, the judge could be removed from the bench or face less serious discipline, the commission said.
“These are not criminal charges,” Henley told the Sun-Star. “These are allegations of misconduct violation of the Code of Judicial Ethics.”
Garcia on Tuesday, issued a statement saying, in part, that he agreed with some aspects of the commission’s findings but adamantly denied ever concealing or deceiving anybody.
“From the very early stages of this inquiry it was and is very important to me to take full responsibility for decisions I made that could have and should have been more carefully undertaken,” Garcia said in his statement. His full statement can be viewed at www.mercedsunstar.com.
The conduct questioned by the commission involves $250,000 in payments Garcia received from his former partners between 2008 and 2012, according to the notice of formal proceedings.
No criminal defense attorneys involved in the program were accused of any misconduct.
MDA attorneys, headed by administrator Tom Pfeiff, handle criminal cases for indigent defendants in Merced County whenever any conflicts of interest prevent the Public Defender’s Office from representing someone.
Garcia in 2001 became a partner in a law firm with Pfeiff and Cindy Morse, wife of District Attorney Larry Morse II. Cindy Morse does not handle any criminal cases, primarily working on family law cases, the commission said.
Garcia left the firm in 2004 to open his own practice, and he and Pfeiff continued to operate the program as a joint business venture until 2007, when Garcia was appointed to the bench, the commission said.
Following the appointment, Pfeiff bought out Garcia, making payments in monthly installments between 2008 and 2012 totaling $250,000, the commission said.
Garcia spent his first two years on the civil court bench but was reassigned to criminal cases in 2009. “Pfeiff and other MDA attorneys regularly appeared before you. You did not disclose the ongoing payments to your presiding judges,” the commission said.
Pfeiff issued a statement Tuesday, confirming the commission’s description of his own role in the matter. He did not comment on the specific allegations made about Garcia.
“Whatever issue has arisen with regard to the money received by Judge Garcia pursuant to the dissolution of our joint venture has nothing to do with MDA and is entirely between Judge Garcia and the Commission on Judicial Performance,” Pfeiff’s statement said in part. His full statement also can be viewed on the Sun-Star’s website.
Garcia was a felony trial judge in Merced County from 2011 until last week, when he and three other judges were given new assignments. Garcia was assigned to the juvenile court.
Linda Romero-Soles, the Merced court’s chief executive, said at the time of the reassignments that the changes were only intended to allow judges more experience in a variety of judicial matters. She denied the assignments were part of any investigation, saying she was “not aware of anything like that, but even if there was one, I couldn’t comment on it.”
Romero-Soles on Tuesday declined to clarify her previous statements, saying she had “no comment.”
The California Fair Political Practices Commission in April 2014 issued Garcia a formal warning letter regarding the same financial disclosure issue. The letter said, in part, Garcia’s failure to disclose the payments violated the Political Reform Act.
“However, since you amended your (statements of economic interest) to reflect this income immediately after contact from the Enforcement Division, and you do not have an enforcement history, we are closing with matter with a warning,” the FPPC said in its letter.
Garcia said he was hopeful the complete truth would come out during the upcoming hearing.
“I have built my professional career on my reputation as a fair and honest person. The governor would not have appointed me had there been concerns to the contrary,” Garcia said. “I simply cannot in good conscience, without a fight, capitulate on that particular issue.”
Garcia was 39 years old when he was named to the bench in 2007 by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Sun-Star staff writer Rob Parsons can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Full statement from Judge Marc A. Garcia
When these inquiries were brought to my attention by the CJP last February, it was literally the first time they were re-analyzed since early 2008 when I brought them to the attention of the then presiding judge. Without going into greater detail, as I expect that will happen at the hearing, it was my belief at the time that my ethical obligations regarding my business interests prior to taking the bench had been addressed adequately.
Some 5 years later when these issues re-emerged, for reasons that I anticipate will also become clear at formal proceedings, my attorney and I re-examined the issues from the perspective of the CJP and came to the conclusion there were valid issues presented, many of which in hindsight I acknowledged and agreed with. From the very early stages of this inquiry it was and is very important to me to take full responsibility for decisions I made that could have and should have been more carefully undertaken. Specifically the disclosure issue regarding the Form 700 for which I immediately filed amended Form 700’s for those years. No further punitive action aside from a warning letter was taken by the FPPC on that particular issue. Additionally, although I entered into an agreement to divest my interest in the MDA contract before I was sworn in as judge, I do acknowledge that the payments having been spread out over a period of years rather taken in a lump sum could be viewed as presenting issues in relation to the disqualification issue.
I have attempted to take responsibility at several points on those issues during the course of this inquiry. We have a fundamental disagreement over one issue in particular and it is why I feel I must respectfully but firmly disagree with the CJP. It is on the issue of “concealment” in particular that I eagerly anticipate the opportunity to present my case to the special masters. I have built my professional career on my reputation as a fair and honest person. The Governor would not have appointed me had there been concerns to the contrary. I simply cannot in good conscience, without a fight, capitulate on that particular issue. I appreciate the support of the Presiding Judge throughout this process and the support of those in the community I serve.
Prepared statement from attorney Tom Pfeiff
“Judge Garcia was a law partner at Morse Pfeiff and Garcia until 2004 when he left to open his own practice. While he was with Morse Pfeiff and Garcia he and law partner Tom Pfeiff operated Merced Defense Associates (MDA). Merced Defense Associates contracts with the county to provide attorneys to represent indigent litigants in the Superior Court in qualifying cases when the Public Defender has a conflict of interest. After Judge Garcia opened his own office, he and Mr. Pfeiff continued to own and administer MDA as a joint venture.
“After Judge Garcia was appointed to the bench in 2007 he and Mr. Pfeiff negotiated the sale of Judge Garcia’s interest in MDA to Mr. Pfeiff and executed a note for the agreed upon value of Judge Garcia’s interest. Judge Garcia took the bench in January, 2008. Mr. Pfeiff’s firm made monthly payments on the note for approximately four and a half years until the note was paid in full.
“Whatever issue has arisen with regard to the money received by Judge Garcia pursuant to the dissolution of our joint venture has nothing to do with MDA and is entirely between Judge Garcia and the Commission on Judicial Performance.
“The description of Mr. Pfeiff’s involvement contained in the Notice of Formal Proceedings filed March 5, 2015 with the Commission on Judicial Performance is not disputed by Mr. Pfeiff.”