SANTA ANA – A former Orange County court clerk who once joked that he could “do the job of a judge” was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison on Friday for fixing more than a thousand drunk-driving and traffic cases in exchange for bribes.
Prosecutors said Jose Lopez Jr., a 37-year-old Anaheim resident, pocketed nearly half a million dollars in the scheme over four years, using his special access to Orange County Superior Court’s computer system to alter cases for people willing pay up to $8,000.
Standing in court on Friday, Lopez said he was “deeply sorry” for the harm he has caused to his family, community and colleagues.
“At the time, I didn’t understand the massive impact I was having on the community,” he said.
Lopez pleaded guilty in March to a federal racketeering charge and had faced up to 20 years in prison. In a letter to the court, the father of seven said his life had fallen off track because of his drinking problem.
But U.S. District Judge Josephine Staton said Lopez was motivated by greed, noting that he used the funds for vacations, a new BMW and a Mexican restaurant in Garden Grove.
The judge said Lopez ran his scheme for more than four years until he was caught, making him a “long-term criminal.”
“This was not an aberration of his character, this was his character,” she said, as she handed down the 11-year sentence.
The judge also noted the impact to the Orange County court system, including the embarrassing headlines, the effect on employee morale, and the hours spent correcting cases.
The court has since refined its auditing practices and redesigned its software.
In all, Lopez tweaked 1,034 cases, including 69 misdemeanor DUI cases, 160 other misdemeanors and 805 traffic-related infractions.
Prosecutors said he ran a sophisticated operation employing middlemen to collect bribe money and to recruit new people. All eleven middle men have been charged and convicted.
He would change court minutes and records to make it appear that defendants had paid fees or performed the required community service when they had not. Some cases showed plea deals that were never made.
He changed records to make it appear that second-time DUI offenders had served mandatory jail time when they had not.
Investigators began looking into the case in early 2015 after a courtroom employee noticed a document was missing in a court file, which contained Lopez’s employee ID.
The investigation prompted judges to re-open hundreds of…