I wasn’t prepared for what I encountered when I met Richard I. Fine for the first time.
Here was a distinguished and brilliant 70-year-old attorney who was disbarred and locked up in the LA County Men’s Central Jail downtown 15 months ago without charge, without bail, without the judiciary or the leadership of LA or the civil liberties community rallying to cause.
Fine is an anti-tax crusader who has exposed one scandal after another involving abuses of the public’s money by those elected to public office, and saved taxpayers more than $1 billion along the way.
He ran afoul of the law revealing that LA County Superior Court judges were being paid more than $40,000 a year under the table by the Board of Supervisors without reporting these payments on their financial disclosure forms and the potential for a conflict of interest with regard to cases involving the County of Los Angeles.
He filed writ after writ in one county case after another questioning the integrity of judges getting these secret payments and their right to try cases involving their hidden benefactor.
He was proven right and when he was, the legislature with the governor’s signature legalized these payments and exonerating the judges for their past illegalities, and the legal fraternity took away his license to practice law because he was making a nuisance of himself.
And then the judges delivered the final blow intended to silence him.
The particular judge was David Yaffe, a jurist well known for his erratic legal rulings and occasional fits of rage in the courtroom.
Yaffe held Fine in contempt of court in March 2009 for refusing to answer detailed questions about his personal finances in a case involving a well-connected developer’s highly questionable project in Marina del Rey
Richard I. Fine was led out of court in handcuffs and booked into the county jail where he has been ever since.
I’ve written and done interviews on the case which has been closely followed by Leslie Dutton’s Full Disclosure Network and attracted followers who share the outrage over his jailing. CNN’s recent extensive report on Fine’s case has given it a higher profile.
It was my first visit to the Men’s Central Jail downtown. It gave me the jitters.
The cold indifference of the Twin Towers hit me when I entered the courtyard and scanned for signs of where to go.
I saw two rows of benches against the wall to my left with dozens of people sitting on them, mostly poor or working class, mostly Latinos. The one exception was a nervous white guy in a cheap suit. It turned he was a Brit with an expired passport, probably an illegal immigrant. He was having a hard time getting past the deputies.
I took a seat on the benches and waited for most of an hour until our group was called. Then, I stood in line as three deputies went individually through each visitor’s identification and paperwork and sent them to the appropriate line to spend a15 minutes or so chatting with their friend or family member.
It was all impersonal and professional. I was told Fine was in the infirmary which led me around a corner, far from the long lines of men, women and children paying a visit to a loved one locked up on a holiday weekend.
Two-way mirrored windows with a small slot at the bottom surrounded what I assumed was the guards’ room. I could hardly hear the deputy’s muffled words but handed over my license and then a loud slam allowed the iron-barred gate to open and I went up the elevator to another room with two-way mirrors and eight or so caged glass booths with telephones so visitor and inmate can talk.
Fine knew I was coming and as we talked, we found our lives had cross paths at the University of Chicago when he was a law student and I was an undergrad and in Cleveland when I was a reporter and he was an attorney trying a price-fixing case against GM and Ford. We live just a couple of miles apart in the Valley.
As we talked about his career and his case, he kept emphasizing there’s always a humorous side to every story. I watched his eyes and the expressions on his face as he rattled off the details of his, citing the state laws by number that were being violated, reciting with precise memory the language of the legal writs he has filed in an effort to win his freedom.
To no avail, his case has gone through the state courts all the way
up to the U.S. Supreme Court which set the maximum for coercive
detention for contempt of court at five days in the case of LA Times
reporter Bill Farr.
Finally, I asked the question I had come to
ask: Why didn’t he just give in and provide his financial information so
he could walk out a free man?
Fine laughed at his predicament.
He faces a life sentence unless Judge Yaffe relents or another court
intervenes or he faces a life of being hounded financially by the
attorneys of the Marina del Rey developer.
Yet, he is in remarkable spirits, a warrior with passion for a cause he believes is more important than his situation. He chooses to stay in
jail and fight the injustice of how illegal conduct is being protected
while the man who exposed it is feeling the full power of the law to
lock up any of us if we stand up too strongly and too well for our
As I walked back through the courtyard to my car, I
thought about what crimes all the other prisoners were locked up for, of
all the friends and family who cared enough to come to visit.
I thought that Richard I. Fine is a prisoner of conscience who fought
the law and the law won, at least so far.
I thought about the
outrage of it, how anyone’s sense of justice should be aroused that this
could be taking place in our city, that a citizen who hasn’t committed a
crime, only offended the judiciary with his well-documented charges of
corruption, should be locked up behind bars for what could amount to a