Photo by Keith MaySome view Sid Soffer as an uncompromising libertarian who endlessly needles the wankers at City Hall to protect his (and our) individual rights; a wildly successful tavern owner whose Blue Beet Caf brought legendary jazz and blues artists to Laguna Beach in the 1960s before being driven out because white folks didn't like the idea of black folks coming to town; and—with his flowing white hair, beard, and usual outfit of jeans, white undershirt and sneakers—the most bitchen of Orange County millionaires.
Others say Soffer is a pack rat who allowed his middle-class Costa Mesa dwelling, various properties and life to fall to near-ruin; a gadfly who for years has inserted himself needlessly into Costa Mesa and Newport Beach City Council meetings; and—with his flowing white hair, beard, and usual outfit of jeans, white undershirt and sneakers—the most unfathomable of Orange County millionaires.
There's a third view of Soffer: a man who holds the fate of OC Superior Court Judge Susanne Shaw's career in his hands—hands that are currently 250 miles away from Her Honor's Newport Beach courtroom in the Harbor Justice Center.
After years of legal wrangling with Costa Mesa's code-enforcement office, Soffer was convicted in Shaw's courtroom of various building-code violations in 1995. When he failed to appear for sentencing in June of that year, she issued an arrest warrant.
Soffer maintains it's Shaw's misunderstanding of the law that forced him to flee to Las Vegas four and a half years ago. Costa Mesa police cannot retrieve him because Soffer was convicted of a misdemeanor (failing to clean up the junk around his property) and extradition laws apply only to felonies.
Now the wheel of fortune has turned, and it's Shaw's butt in the sling. On Nov. 18, the state Commission on Judicial Performance concluded a hearing into Shaw's alleged misconduct on the bench. Commissioners heard testimony that Shaw talked to prosecutors without defense attorneys present, made inflammatory statements to defendants who had been convicted, inappropriately informed a jury she thought a defendant was lying, and routinely sang in court. It could take months for commissioners to agree on whether to punish Shaw. Such punishment could range from a warning to removal from the bench.
Soffer, who is following the case from Vegas, told us the allegations against Shaw “sound like a little less than spitting on the sidewalk.” But he also claims he has been contacted by a commission investigator looking into new allegations that Shaw has deprived defendants of their constitutional right to an attorney.
“That's what she actually did to me two times,” asserted Soffer, who alleges that a tape recording he possesses from his trial bears this out. “It's a serious accusation. It is grounds for reversal of a conviction—any criminal conviction.”
The allegations may spur the commission investigator to file a new complaint against Shaw. Soffer vowed that if he's dissatisfied with the progress of the new probe, he'll file a Judicial Performance complaint against Shaw based solely on his own case.
A commission spokesperson told the Weekly she could not confirm Soffer's involvement in the Shaw case. “All complaints that come to this office are confidential,” she said.
Shaw failed to respond to repeated requests for comment.
However it ultimately plays out, Soffer promises to return to Orange County by New Year's Day. He believes he can reverse his conviction thanks to hours of legal research he has done while on the lam and help he has received from a network of OC friends, including some inside City Hall.
“The court is saying, 'Come back and go to jail so you can get out of jail,'” Soffer said. “I don't like that. [Shaw] completely misunderstood the law. I didn't break any law. How can I be convicted if I didn't break any law?”
Soffer maintains the city of Costa Mesa began investigating alleged building-code violations at apartments he owned in the mid-1980s but did not bring charges against him until 1990. He was originally ordered to appear in court on charges that he violated building codes in the construction of his apartments. Soffer claims he told the court he didn't build the apartments—he bought them seven years after someone else built them in 1972.
Soffer said the city then amended the charge to read that he “maintained” a building that was in breach of the code. Shaw asked Soffer if he owned the building (he did) and if he was collecting rent from—and thus maintaining—it (he did). “Boom! Guilty,” Soffer recalls the judge saying.
Shaw ordered him to make repairs to the property. When he failed, she ordered him back to court for a jail sentence. When Soffer didn't show, Shaw issued an arrest warrant and set bail at $250,000. The judge later admitted she made a mistake: Soffer had exhausted all legal challenges, so there could be no bail. At a “bail-correction proceeding,” Shaw ordered a “no-bail warrant” for Soffer's arrest.
A lawyer representing Soffer tried to address the court at that proceeding, but Shaw refused to “accept” the appearance, saying there was nothing left to argue. When he continued to try to raise points from the case, Shaw shouted him down, threatening him with contempt. “I do not play into your hands because they are manipulative, and they are not correct,” she told the lawyer.
With that, Soffer alleges, Shaw denied Soffer his right to counsel, which he says is grounds for a Judicial Performance complaint.
Meanwhile, he intends to file documents in Shaw's court that he says should lead to his immediate release in the building-code case. He'll allege that the city perjured itself when it originally charged him with having built the structure and that it was improper to change the charges against him in the middle of the trial.
If Shaw does not free Soffer or order a new trial, he vows to go to federal court and argue that the statute of limitations has expired on his case. Since his conviction, he says, he has obtained documents that show Costa Mesa building inspectors “red-tagged” the building shortly after it was built. If the city knew the building was out of compliance before Soffer bought it—and two decades before charges were brought against him—the two-year statute of limitations for building-code violations should have elapsed years before he set foot in court, he figures.
Soffer won't attend either hearing; he'll be represented by a lawyer. But he can't return to Orange County soon enough. He claims his Sid's tavern on Old Newport Boulevard has lost $40,000 per month while he's been in Sin City.
“After I left, [Sid's] got caught playing loud music and having people drinking beer outside,” he said. “They had to stop serving booze for two weeks. I went from $120,000 per month to $80,000 per month, which never would have happened if I'd been in town. The city towed away my cars, and my house was completely ransacked. I lost more than 20 vehicles—they supposedly crushed them —which never would have happened had I been there. A lot of nights, Sid's closes because there is no cook or no bartender. That would never happen if I were there. Sid's was ordered closed by the Health Department. That would never happen if I were there.”
If he's ultimately freed, don't expect a big welcome-home party at Sid's. “I'm not a party giver,” he said. “I'm not a party person. But the council of Newport Beach and the council of Costa Mesa will know I'm back.”
Some say Sid Soffer has pissed his life away over piddly city squabbles. He doesn't discount that.
“I went to the council and tried to protect the little guy—that's what I'm guilty of,” he said. “I've done more good for other people than I have for myself.”
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.