"For This Judge and His Friends, One Good Turn Led to Another"
"LAS VEGAS — Without help from a friend, James Mahan might never have become a Las Vegas state judge. Certainly he wouldn't have gotten one of the top judicial jobs in town: a lifetime appointment to the federal bench.
Then again, without Mahan, his friend George Swarts would never have gotten to run an Internet porn business, a hotel-casino hair salon or a Southern California software company. Indeed, the careers of Judge James C. Mahan, 62, and his friend George C. Swarts, also 62, whom he appointed again and again as a receiver to manage troubled businesses, might be the ultimate example of how juice replaces justice in Las Vegas courtrooms."
"In this town, people speak reverently of having juice, or an "in," and Mahan -- bearded, likable but sometimes caustic -- has made it a striking feature in his courtroom. First as a state judge and now as a federal judge, he has approved more than $4.8 million in judgments and fees during more than a dozen cases in which a recent search of court records found no statement that he disclosed his relationships with those who benefited from his decisions.
On the state bench for three years, and since his appointment as a U.S. District Court judge four years ago by President Bush, Mahan has approved many of these fees for Swarts, a certified public accountant who had served as his judicial campaign treasurer and whose political connections got him appointed. Mahan approved additional fees for Frank A. Ellis III, 51, a former law partner with whom the judge still owned property and participated in a profit-sharing plan. Ellis also provided free legal services for Mahan's family and for his executive judicial assistant.
Mahan, like a number of Las Vegas judges, has taken on cases despite state and federal prohibitions against such apparent conflicts. Some Las Vegas judges have ruled in cases involving their friends, even those to whom they owe money.
The practice harms visitors and business people alike, especially Californians, who come here in large numbers to work and play. They fall victim to an untamed style of justice, blatantly tangled in clashing local interests.
Las Vegas is a town of instant millionaires, 60-second weddings, six-week divorces and a sly wink at conflicts of interest, to say nothing of the abuses that go with them. Some California lawyers view Las Vegas justice as just another crapshoot. When they are pressed about it, some Nevada lawyers openly condemn the system. The excuse, says Las Vegas attorney Charles W. Bennion, "is that this is the way it's always been done -- fast and loose."
Even in Las Vegas, however, Judge James Cameron Mahan stands out.
When owners fight over a business, judges often appoint someone independent as either a special master, to investigate the dispute, or as a receiver, to run the business until the differences are settled.
On 13 occasions in state and federal court, Mahan has installed Swarts, a large man in a business suit who tells people how to spell his name -- "think of 'wart' with an 's' on each end" -- or his son, Curtis, 41, taller and more often casually dressed, at up to $250 an hour, to be a special master or receiver in cases that come before him.
Mahan has then given his approval when George Swarts hired Ellis, low-key and quiet-spoken, or his firm, at up to $250 an hour, to represent Swarts in nine of these cases. In all, Mahan ordered plaintiffs and defendants to pay Swarts and Ellis more than $700,000, the records show."
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"Las Vegas judge under investigation
"Investigations of federal judges are confidential. However, two people independently familiar with the matter said that a law firm hired by the 9th Circuit has scheduled interviews with key figures in the Mahan case.
The law firm was hired by the 9th Circuit "to investigate and make a recommendation" regarding possible disciplinary action for Mahan, one of the sources said.
The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they might run afoul of the court's secrecy requirements for judicial inquiries. Ninth Circuit confidentiality rules apply to "any person in any proceeding" and provide that violators "could be held in contempt."
The federal investigation follows several reforms initiated at the state level after the series of Times articles exposing irregularities in the Las Vegas judiciary. The measures include the appointment last month of a 30-member statewide commission "to investigate and make recommendations" for reforming the state justice system.
On Mahan, the articles detailed how he awarded fees in a dozen state and federal cases to a former client and business associate who twice served as his judicial campaign treasurer and who was instrumental in getting him appointed to the bench.
Mahan also approved additional fees for his former law partner, who was providing free legal services for both the judge's wife and the judge's executive judicial assistant, and with whom the judge was still tied financially through property ownership and a profit sharing plan.
A search of court records found no indication that he disclosed his ties to those who were awarded the judgments and fees.
Mahan angrily denied any wrongdoing before publication of the articles, and has not responded to questions and repeated phone calls since.
The disclosures in June prompted U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr. of Los Angeles, former chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, to publicly urge Chief Judge Mary M. Schroeder of the 9th Circuit, to investigate.
"I fully expect the chief judge to do something," Hatter said shortly after the articles appeared.
Bound by its strict rules of secrecy, the 9th Circuit, which oversees Nevada, California and seven other Western states, has kept silent on whether it is even considering an investigation."
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