Posted December 4, 2018, 12:56 pm CST
A California lawyer and his wife were convicted Monday of extortion and other charges for a series of suits and offers to settle against several small businesses owned by minorities and immigrants.
The suits filed by Riverside lawyer Rogelio Morales and his wife, Mireya Arias, had alleged the businesses violated California law by charging different prices to men and women. But prosecutors said the price differences were fair, and the real purpose of the lawsuits was to extort settlements.
The couple were convicted of crimes that included extortion, attempted grand theft, burglary and hate crimes, report the Riverside Press-Enterprise and the Associated Press. Morales faced more charges than Arias, according to the Press-Enterprise.
The hate-crime allegations were due to allegations that Morales targeted business owners based on race, ethnicity or perceived nationality, according to the Press-Enterprise. Morales also was convicted of felony stalking and several contempt-of-court misdemeanors for violating a restraining order that barred him from harassing a lawyer who represented several business owners.
Prosecutors claimed the scheme worked this way: Morales and his wife would visit the small businesses, pay for services, and then file suit if they were charged differing prices. In one example, a hair salon charged Arias $15 and Morales $8 for haircuts, a price difference that reflected the longer time for Arias’ service.
After filing the suits, Morales would identify himself as the lawyer and offer to settle for $10,000.
In 11 weeks, Morales and Arias filed 11 lawsuits seeking an aggregate of more than $2 million in damages, prosecutors said. One of the suits was scheduled for trial on Tuesday, and 10 others were scheduled to begin Jan. 4. A pro bono lawyer representing some of the business owners, Bryan Owens Sahagún, told the Press-Enterprise that he plans to seek dismissal. He is married to the lawyer, Rosa Elena Sahagún, who was allegedly harassed by Morales.
Arias’ lawyer, Darryl Exum, told the Press-Enterprise he is “still not sure that Mr. Morales’ conduct wasn’t constitutionally protected, but now it’s for another court to review.”
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