Court Digest

Oakland agrees to settle suit from Ghost Ship fire

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — The City Council on Tuesday agreed to pay $399,000 to settle the last lawsuit over a 2016 fire at an illegally converted warehouse dubbed the Ghost Ship that killed 36 people.

The city doesn’t acknowledge any wrongdoing in the settlement of a lawsuit by a dozen former residents, the San Francisco Chronicle reported.

The warehouse had been illegally converted into a residential space for artists and an event venue when it caught fire on Dec. 2, 2016, during an electronic music party.

The building was packed with furniture, extension cords and other flammable material but had only two exits and no smoke detectors, fire alarms or sprinklers, authorities said.

In July, the City Council agreed to pay $32.7 million to settle lawsuits filed by the families of 32 victims and one survivor who suffered lifelong injuries.

It was one of the largest settlements in city history.

Tuesday’s settlement resolves the “last remaining claims” of lawsuits arising from the fire, Chief Assistant City Attorney Maria Bee said in a statement.

The cause of the fire hasn’t been determined, although some lawsuits said there were serious electrical problems with the building.

Prosecutors charged Derick Almena, the master tenant on the warehouse lease, with 36 counts of involuntary manslaughter, arguing that he was criminally negligent when he converted and sublet the space. A judge declared a mistrial last fall. Almena is awaiting retrial.

Almena’s attorneys argued city workers were to blame for not raising concerns about fire hazards in the warehouse. City officials had said the building hadn’t been inspected for three decades, and when inspectors did visit the site in November 2016, they were unable to enter to investigate a report of illegal construction.

A co-defendant, Max Harris, was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter charges last year and no longer lives in the state.

The building’s owner, Chor Ng, wasn’t charged with a crime.

Adviser sentenced in fraud with church pastor

SHREVEPORT, La. (AP) — A Louisiana investment adviser was sentenced Tuesday to six years in prison for his part in a $3.5 million fraud in which customers invested money with a Texas megachurch minister who had counseled two presidents.

Gregory Alan Smith, 58, of Shreveport, also was ordered to pay nearly $3.6 million restitution and a $100,000 fine, Acting U.S. Attorney Alexander C. Van Hook said in a news release.

Smith “persuaded multiple victims to invest approximately $3.5 million with his co-defendant, Kirbyjon H. Caldwell,” the statement said.

“This case proves that even those you trust to have your best interest at heart sometimes may not. The victims in this case thought their trusted advisor and friend would never lead them astray but sadly, he was merely a con man who led them down an unwanted path,” Van Hook said.

Caldwell, like Smith, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit wire fraud and agreed to a sentence of five to seven years. Prosecutors dropped other counts against each. Caldwell is scheduled for sentencing Dec. 3.

As senior pastor of Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston, Caldwell had been a spiritual adviser to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and officiated in 2008 at the wedding of Bush’s daughter Jenna. The church’s website currently describes him as a lay preacher and his wife as associate pastor.

According to the Department of Justice, Caldwell and Smith convinced victims in 2013 and 2014 to invest in bonds issued by the former Republic of China before it lost power to the Chinese Communist Party in 1949.

“The bonds were considered by the Securities and Exchange Commission to be mere collectables with no value outside of the memorabilia market,” the news release said.

Smith got more than $1 million, which he used to pay down loans, buy two luxury SUVs, make a down payment on vacation property and maintain his lifestyle, prosecutors said. When Caldwell pleaded guilty, prosecutors said he used about $900,000 to maintain his lifestyle and pay down personal loans and mortgages.

That earlier news release said Caldwell had made partial restitution to the victims and agreed to pay the remaining $1.95 million before sentencing.

U.S. District Judge S. Maurice Hicks Jr. said Smith will be on supervised probation for three years after he gets out of prison.

New York
April trial scheduled for Avenatti over Daniels book

NEW YORK (AP) — An April trial date was set Tuesday for Michael Avenatti to face charges that he cheated ex-client Stormy Daniels out of proceeds from her book.

U.S. District Judge Jesse M. Furman in Manhattan set the April 21 trial date during a video conference for the once high-flying California lawyer who regularly criticized President Donald Trump while representing the stripper and porn star.

Avenatti’s attacks on Trump were made after he sued the president over a payoff Daniels received to remain silent about her claims of a tryst with Trump before he became president. Trump has denied an affair occurred. The president was ordered to pay Daniels $44,100 in legal fees.

Prosecutors say Avenatti, 49, cheated Daniels out of $300,000 in proceeds from her 2018 book, “Full Disclosure.” Avenatti, who wrote the forward for the book, has pleaded not guilty.

The trial, projected to last two weeks, is now set to start more than a year after it was originally scheduled.

The coronavirus pandemic forced the long delay. Avenatti was released on bail in April, after saying a recent bout with pneumonia left him vulnerable to the coronavirus behind bars. He returned to Los Angeles.

In February, he was convicted of trying to extort $25 million from Nike. He is scheduled to be sentenced in that case next month.

He also faces fraud charges in California, and two additional trials next year are scheduled.

Prosecutors seek trial date for indicted sheriff

ATHENS, Ala. (AP) — Prosecutors are asking a judge to set a trial date for a longtime Alabama sheriff who has continued to serve despite being indicted on theft and ethics charges.

The state is pushing to a date to begin the trial of Limestone County Sheriff Mike Blakely, who was indicted in August 2019 on multiple charges, news outlets reported.

Blakely, 70, pleaded not guilty a year ago, and the state attorney general’s office maintained in court documents that it’s time for him the go on trial. A judge has set a hearing for Nov. 19, when he could consider the timing of the trial.

Court cases were delayed statewide because of the coronavirus pandemic, and as many as 500 potential jurors could be called for Blakely’s case because he’s so well known in north Alabama, where the case would be held.

Prosecutors argued that officials have learned how to conduct jury trials safely, and Blakely should go to court rather than remain in office without a resolution to his case.

A grand jury indicted Blakely on 12 felony counts and one misdemeanor alleging he stole campaign donations, used his job to obtain interest-free loans and solicited money from employees. He has been sheriff of the north Alabama county for about 37 years.

Alabama law doesn’t require the suspension of public officials who are under indictment.

New York
Lawsuit challenging arrest of transgender woman settled

NEW YORK (AP) — The New York Police Department will have to give its force more training on protecting the rights of transgender people as part of a deal announced Tuesday that settles a civil rights lawsuit accusing officers of mocking a transgender woman by putting her in pink handcuffs.

The settlement also requires the city to pay Linda Dominguez $30,000 over allegations that the officers wrongly accused her of misrepresenting her identity while arresting her in the Bronx in 2018, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union.

“I never want anyone to go through the abuse I experienced from people sworn to protect me,” Dominguez said in a statement. “As an advocate for my community, I couldn’t let this go.”

Under the terms of the settlement, the NYPD has agreed to redistribute its guidance on interactions with transgender people to every officer. It also will retrain officers in the Bronx precinct where Dominguez was arrested on the rights of transgender and gender-nonconforming people, her lawyers said.

According to the lawsuit filed last year by attorneys from the NYCLU and the American Civil Liberties Union, Dominguez was walking through a Bronx park to her apartment when officers stopped her for being in the park after it was closed.

Dominguez speaks limited English and had difficulty understanding the officers, but she first gave them her original name along with her birth date and address, she said in the lawsuit. The officers took her to the station house, where she explained to a Spanish-speaking officer that she was transgender and that her legal name was now Linda, as shown on a valid state identification card, she said.

The officers placed Dominguez in a cell, handcuffed to a bar or pipe using pink handcuffs, and left her in the handcuffs all night, according to her lawsuit. The officers referred to Dominguez by her masculine first name throughout her detention, laughed at her and referred to her as “he” and “him,” she said.

Dominguez was arraigned the next day on charges of trespassing for being in the park after hours, as well as false impersonation. The charges were dismissed a few months later.

Dominguez, 45, a cosmetologist and an activist for the rights of transgender immigrants, said that the arrest caused her “mental anguish, ongoing humiliation and embarrassment” and that she remains afraid of the police.

Lawyer asks for probe of officers in 2018 break-in

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — An attorney representing a Tennessee homeowner is asking the Metro Nashville Community Oversight Board to investigate officers who responded to a break-in by a former New York officer during a drunken bachelor party two years ago.

Nashville attorney Daniel Horwitz is representing Conese Halliburton, the woman whose house New York City Police Department officer Michael Reynolds is accused of invading in July 2018. Horwitz said he believes responding Metro Nashville Police Officers committed “significant misconduct” while investigating the break-in, The Tennessean reported Monday.

Reynolds acknowledged breaking into Halliburton’s home, which he mistook for the Airbnb rental where he was staying, the newspaper has reported. Reynolds, who is white, also allegedly threatened to shoot the Black family and used a racist slur, the newspaper said. Halliburton was in the home with her four sons at the time, according to prosecutors.

In a letter to review board director Jill Fitcheard, Horwitz said Halliburton testified that a Nashville officer gave incorrect information to dispatch about what Reynolds was wearing that night and wrote false information in an incident report.

Horwitz also alleged in the letter that Nashville officers tried to cover up other actions in the case and have attempted “to intimidate” the Halliburtons.

The oversight board did not immediately say whether they would investigate the allegations about the Nashville officers. A police department spokesperson told The Tennessean that officials were unaware of the allegations or whether internal affairs had been notified, according to the newspaper.

Last month, a federal judge ordered Reynolds to pay $1 million to Halliburton to resolve a federal civil lawsuit filed by Halliburton accusing him of assault, trespassing and emotional distress. Halliburton was sentenced to 15 days in jail last December after pleading no contest to aggravated criminal trespass and three counts of assault in the home invasion. He quit the police force a month later amid protests calling for his firing.

Appellate panel rebukes judge elected to state Supreme Court

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — An eastern Kentucky judge who was elected last week to the Kentucky Supreme Court has been rebuked in a ruling issued by the state Court of Appeals for losing his temper during a hearing.

Greenup Circuit Judge Robert B. Conley acted “peremptorily, profanely and dyspeptically” when he shouted and cursed at a defendant and slammed his hand on his bench, the Court of Appeals wrote in an opinion released Friday, news outlets reported.

Conley revoked defendant James Burns’ probation and sentenced him to 10 years in prison during the hearing last year. The appellate panel reversed Conley’s order and sent the case back to him. The panel said Conley erred because he didn’t enter findings of fact to justify the revocation.

Molly Mattingly, an attorney for Burns, said she was glad he will get relief.

Conley got angry when Burns was explaining he was having a difficult time completing treatment that was a condition of his probation.