American Justice: Smokers, the con man and the quality of our lives
Once again Wednesday, I found myself sitting in Department 101 of the Van Nuys Municipal Court to observe the case of the People of Los Angeles vs. Nadya Mahdavi and Fidelity Investments LLC who are accused in a criminal complaint of illegally converting a single-family house in my tract into a three-apartment tenement.
She was standing in the hallway chatting on her cell phone and smiled sweetly at me as I headed into the courtroom. She was there to finally enter a plea to the four misdemeanor charges dating back nine months to when the Building and Safety Department first cited her for construction without a permit.
As the citations grew in number and finally turned into criminal charges, Mahdavi had managed to avoid even getting to the point of entering a plea, first by failing to appear, then appearing without a lawyer and then getting a continuance.
Assistant City Attorney Don Cocek assured me she wouldn’t get another delay.
So I sat in court and listened to case after case of people facing everything from petty theft to drug charges to building code violations to spousal abuse.
Muncipal courts are fascinating, the place where ordinary people come against the law with little chance of escaping the consequences.
Nancy Johnson and Nzinga Owolo, like most of the defendants, found there was no alternative to pleading guilty to the crime they were accused of: Smoking in the park.
“Cigarettes?” I asked Johnson.
“Yes,” she said, “my cousin and I went to Balboa Park to fish, for tilapia mostly, and we lit up cigarettes and we’re just talking when the ranger came up and wrote us up.”
Johnson and Owolo pleaded guilty and were fined $30 each. But the court costs raised their penalty to $250 each because smoking in the park is a misdemeanor crime, not just an infraction, so the fees are high and they now have criminal records which makes those fish they were catching pretty expensive.
“It’s crap” Johnson said. “Ridiculous There’s no signs posted. We went around the park and took pictures but nobody cares. They just want your money.”
Cocek didn’t really disagree and added it isn’t just the city, it’s
people like 82-year-old Albert Prizant who has a habit of posing as a
contractor, running ads in the newspaper and going out to people’s
houses and getting their deposit for work he never does.
followed Cocek up to Department 105 where Prizant was brought in
handcuffed in a blue jail jumpsuit. He had been arrested on warrants
for failing to pay $15,000 in fines and failing to pay $4,500 in
restitution to his victims.
Cocek was determined to put an end
to Prizant’s career as a con man and offered to clear up the old cases
if he agreed to serve 95 more day in jail on top of the 270 he already
was credited with.
“This guy needs to be locked up,” the prosecutor said. “He needs to spend life in prison on the installment plan.”
wasn’t kidding. On Tuesday, Prizant was charged with a felony after
state Contracting Licensing Board investigators set up a sting
operation and caught him preying on victims of the recent Sylmar brush
fire. The investigation turned up seven more victims that Cocek can
file misdemeanor charges over as well.
By the time we got back
to Department 101, Mahdavi was talking intensely with her Encino
attorney Gerald Cobb. An hour later Cobb came into the courtroom and
spent 30 minutes talking privately with the prosecutor and Building and
Finally, just after noon, the case was called.
Cobb entered a not guilty plea and it was over. Mahdavi never even came
into the courtroom.
Her trial was set for Jan. 22, a year
after she bought the house in my tract out of foreclosure and began
converting it into apartments and flipping its ownership to an employee
of her real estate company and to Fidelity Investments that lists her
as an officer.
The latter point was disputed by Cobb in his talk
with Cocek. Cobb said the president of the company is her husband,
Nasir Shaikh, and he was nowhere to be seen.
Something about it all came into focus for me.
was swift and costly for the two women who went fishing for their
dinner and violated a law supposedly intended to protect the quality of
life in the community by stopping people from smoking in a public park.
But the quality of life of my neighborhood is still in jeopardy after all these months.
still occupy the three apartments, the neighbors are still upset and
worried that if Mahdavi and company can get away with this, it will
happen again and again until the quiet little tract where they have
lived in peace for 50 years becomes a slum like so much of the city has
It’s not news that people with money, with lawyers, get treated differently than people who can’t afford lawyers.
But it seems to me something bigger is at stake here.
have invented new categories of crimes that are at worst petty offenses
that could be solved by telling people like Johnson and Owolo to put
out their cigarettes but we are helpless to stop guys like Prizant
until they have made fools of dozens of people or people like Mahdavi
who play the system itself for a fool.