A white, male judicial candidate, reluctant to take on a Hispanic woman in a race for a seat on the superior court in heavily Hispanic Los Angeles County, Calif., offered her a bribe to run against someone else. That’s the gist of the state attorney general office’s case against Harvey Silberman, who won that election and now is a sitting judge.
Judicial elections were already rife with negative campaign ads and financing from outside political groups. Whether Silberman is convicted or not, his case offers something new: a glimpse into how the machinery of judicial elections has come to work, from the use of political consultants to the deal-making among the candidates. It also shows that the machine can run off the rails.
Specifically, Deputy Attorney General Zee Rodriguez said during closing arguments on July 28 that Silberman, through his campaign consultants and others, tried to bribe Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Serena Murillo not to run against him. “He authorized it and allowed it to happen,” Rodriguez said.
During his closing arguments, defense attorney Shepard Kopp honed in on the politics of judicial races, asserting that his client was unaware of what his campaign consultants were doing and blasting the government’s witnesses in the case. “The problem with politicizing judicial elections…is you get rogues,” he said. “You get rogues, like Evelyn Alexander and Randy Steinberg, who are willing to do whatever it takes to win.”
Alexander and Steinberg, principals of the consulting firm SJA Strategies who advised Silberman on his campaign, were indicted alongside the judge but have pleaded no contest to misdemeanors and testified for the government during his trial, which began on July 18. The case has gone to the jury, which was deliberating at press time.
Silberman’s lawyers — Kopp, a solo practitioner whose clients have included Winona Ryder and rapper Nate Dogg, and Daniel Nixon of Byrne & Nixon, both in Los Angeles — have denied that he ever authorized any bribe. They also maintain that prosecutors failed to provide sufficient evidence that he — and not someone else — did so.
Silberman, who presided over a family law calendar in the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in Los Angeles, appeared in court but didn’t take the stand. If convicted, he faces up to three years in prison.
The financing of judicial campaigns has long been a source of concern among those who fear that donors use contributions to gain influence over judges. The Silberman case represents something else entirely, said Adam Skaggs, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice who studies judicial elections. “This case is kind of in a class by itself,” he said.
“Judges are held to an extremely high standard of conduct,” Skaggs said. “They are, and should be, required to refrain from impropriety or even anything that might have the appearance of impropriety. If the public sees something that appears untoward, it certainly undermines the reputation of the judiciary.”
Silberman decided to run for one of 11 contested seats on the Los Angeles Superior Court during the 2008 election cycle, after serving as a commissioner for the court. As a commissioner, he handled some high-profile family law disputes, including Charlie Sheen’s custody battle with ex-wife Denise Richards over their two children.
Eventually, the district attorney’s office, where Murillo worked, turned over the case to the California attorney general’s office. It brought the indictment in 2009, charging Silberman, Alexander and Steinberg each with violating a section of California’s Election Code that prohibits someone from having “solicited, or received, any money or another valuable consideration to or for the use of any person in order to induce a person not to become or to withdraw as a candidate for public office.” They also were charged with solicitation to commit a crime of “offering, accepting or joining in an offer of acceptance of a bribe” under California’s Penal Code.
Because all the judges on the Los Angeles Superior Court were disqualified, the case was assigned to a judge from the Orange County, Calif., Superior Court. Judge Richard King took over the case. He granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss the Penal Code charges, but refused to dismiss the election law charges.
On Feb. 7, Steinberg agreed to plead no contest to a misdemeanor and, under an agreement with prosecutors, became a witness for the state. Alexander made a similar deal on May 25.
Rodriguez told the jury that Silberman, when faced with Murillo as his sole opponent, took the “easier route” to win the election by engaging in ugly political tactics. Murillo, on the other hand, maintained her integrity, she said.
She outlined a case built on key witnesses and telephone records. On Feb. 7, 2008, Murillo filed a declaration of interest in the open seat against Silberman, Rodriguez said. The following day, Silberman placed a call to William Kopeny, an attorney in Irvine, Calif., and former chairman of the Judicial Nomination and Evaluation Commission, asking him to “try to get Ms. Murillo out of this race,” Rodriguez said.
Silberman was concerned that Murillo might suffer a conflict of interest because she had obtained confidential information about him while serving on the commission in 2005. When Kopeny insisted there was no conflict, Silberman threatened to go public with his concerns, which he said could discredit the commission.
Then, on Feb. 10, 2008, one day before the deadline to file a declaration to run, Los Angeles Superior Court Commissioner Lori-Ann Jones called Murillo to discuss Murillo’s plans. Jones was considering a run for the bench herself at the time. With Jones at the time was Alexander, whom Jones had retained as a campaign consultant. Murillo told Jones that she would stick with the race against Silberman. Minutes later, a call was placed from Jones’ home to Silberman, telephone records showed. Minutes after that call, Jones called Murillo back.
According to Rodriguez, Jones told Murillo that Silberman had agreed to pay her $1,787 filing fee if she would drop out of the race. “The only reason Lori Jones needed to call Ms. Murillo back that day was to convey defendant’s offer,” Rodriguez said.
Jones, who ended up resigning last year, testified for the prosecution.
Prosecutors also relied on testimony by Murillo’s campaign consultant, Hal Dash of Cerrell Associates Inc. Dash testified that Steinberg, in a telephone call weeks after the Jones incident, suggested that if Murillo were to pay for Silberman’s ballot statement — about $83,000 — Silberman would no longer run for the same seat. Later, when Dash was cooperating with the government investigators, he called Alexander, who reiterated the alleged offer in a tape-recorded conversation.
Alexander testified that Silberman knew nothing about the ballot-statement offer. But she didn’t defend the judge regarding the filing-fee call made from Jones’ house, Rodriguez said. Murillo ultimately refused the filing-fee offer and contacted the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, her employer, which launched the investigation.
In court, Kopp questioned the conflicts he said were inherent in the district attorney’s investigation of a crime affecting one of its own employees. “That had a profound effect on what happened here,” he said. He maintained that Murillo, who had longtime ambitions of becoming a judge, had friends in the district attorney’s public integrity division, the same group that headed the investigation of his client. “She doesn’t come to the witness stand as an unbiased observer. She had an agenda here.”
He painted a sordid picture of Dash, her campaign consultant, who was among the first in his business to engage in hardball political tactics in judicial elections. He said that Silberman, an openly gay man, had reason to be concerned that running against an opponent who might have confidential information about him that could endanger his chances of winning votes. He said he was understandably upset when Kopeny on the judicial commission found there was no conflict.
“In the end, Serena Murillo is really not important to this case,” he said. “She never talked to Harvey Silberman. Everything she knows was relayed by two or more witnesses.”
Kopp attacked those witnesses, calling their testimonies akin to the game “telephone,” wherein statements change dramatically when passed from one person to the next. “You had a parade of prosecution witnesses, each with something to gain who came in here and lied on the witness stand — and we proved it,” he said. “You’ve got to test the credibility of their witnesses.”
He attempted to discredit Jones, who initially told investigators at the district attorney’s office that her offer to Murillo was hypothetical and that Silberman had no knowledge of it. Later, after the attorney general’s office granted her immunity, she changed her story.
As for Alexander, Kopp referenced her “rogue” history in other judicial campaigns. In one case, she offered to pay filing fees for Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Bobbi Tillmon, who testified in the Silberman trial that she had no knowledge of Alexander’s activities.
“That shows you Evelyn Alexander is a liar,” Kopp said. “The bottom line: For you to find Judge Silberman guilty, you’re gonna have to believe Evelyn Alexander. And you can’t.”
Amanda Bronstad can be contacted at email@example.com. Staff reporter Karen Sloan contributed to this article.