By Guy Ashley © 2000 Marin Independent Journal.

Critics who have rattled cages around the Marin courthouse in recent months have drummed home their claims of favoritism toward well-financed litigants and cronyism between judges and lawyers with one ominous assertion: that the FBI is investigating possible criminal violations within the local court system.

To this day, however, the FBI has remained conspicuously silent about a probe that many involved in the local court scene accept as a given fact.

"We can't confirm or deny the existence of any investigation into the Marin courts," FBI Special Agent Andrew Black said on Friday, reiterating the no-comment stance the bureau has taken since controversy began swirling around the local courts six months ago.

The unconfirmed reports of FBI involvement have peppered news accounts and claims of corruption by court critics, a fact that breeds plenty of resentment among the local court's staunchest defenders.

"It's easy to make claims that you can't back up," said John Montgomery, administrator of the Marin courts. "I've heard all the rumors but nobody's ever shown me one iota of evidence of an investigation by the FBI. And, until I see some solid proof, I can't help but think it's just another way people are trying to tarnish the reputations of the judges and the courts."

Public pronouncements of FBI involvement began on Feb. 29, when New York investigator Karen Winner issued a report asserting that cronyism and conflicts of interest were embedded in Marin's family court system, to the detriment of families who looked to the courts for fairness in hashing out divorce and child custody cases.

Winner, who was paid about $10,000 by a core of citizens dismayed by local court decisions, spoke pointedly at a Corte Madera news conference about a "broken system" in which Marin's two family jurists at the time, Michael Dufficy and Sylvia Shapiro, routinely disregarded the law and favored a small coterie of lawyers and psychology experts. She accused jurists of most often siding with parties who brought the most financial backing to family law cases.

Winner called for the immediate suspensions of Dufficy and Shapiro and outside review of the cases over which they presided. Her findings have since been soundly criticized in some circles as lacking objectivity and reflecting only the opinions of the people who hired her.

"The FBI is investigating," she told a standing-room-only audience in a banquet room at the Corte Madera Inn. "Agents started interviewing people in November."

Critics of the court have repeated claims of FBI involvement over the past several months, as Winner's report spawned a recall movement targeting Dufficy and three other judges and Marin District Attorney Paula Kamena.

One of the recall drive's leaders, Peter Romanowsky, admitted this week that the effort is falling short in its effort to garner public support for a recall election next year.

One person who says she was interviewed by the FBI is Kathryn Ballentine Shepherd, a Larkspur family law attorney who says her once amicable relationship with Dufficy soured earlier this year when she concluded that Dufficy was biased against women in family law cases. She cited this belief in seeking his removal from a heated divorce case.

"I've spoken to two different agents who were interested in the court and primarily Judge Dufficy," Shepherd said. "I took part in one lengthy interview at the end of May, possibly the beginning of June, and since then have had a couple of follow-up conversations with them on the telephone."

Shepherd declined to discuss the specifics of what was said in those conversations.

"They talked about the investigation being confidential. I got the impression they didn't want me to talk about what we talked about," she said.

Another person who claims to have been contacted by the FBI is Martin Silverman of San Rafael, one of a group of citizens who commissioned Winner's report.

"I spoke with them on two occasions, probably about three months ago," he said. "I also know about six other people who have been interviewed."

Absent from the list of purported FBI contacts is Dufficy, who resigned as Marin's chief family law judge and now presides over civil cases.

"I haven't heard one word from them," he said. "I've only read about it in newspaper stories."

Montgomery, the county courts administrator, said it will take more than claims of closed-door interviews with FBI agents for him to believe the bureau is conducting a full-blown probe of the Marin courts.

"To anyone who says you've been interviewed by the FBI, I say it's incumbent upon you to provide some specifics – when, where, what was said, what information was provided," he said. "Otherwise, to me, it's just more mudslinging."

Silverman said he's not comfortable discussing the details of his discussions with FBI agents.

"They met with me privately, and I feel it would be betraying a confidence for me to go into it any further," he said.

Published Sunday, September 10, 2000, in the San Jose Mercury News

It's no longer just `who gets the kids' -- custody of the stock options is at stake

Mercury News

Money is changing a lot about life in Silicon Valley. Even divorce. It's messier than ever.

``It used to be two kids and a car, a house and an IRA, furniture and credit cards,'' said William Dok, a veteran San Jose family law attorney. ``Now, we have huge equity in family homes, more homes, a multitude of deferred compensation programs and more toys.''

Luxury cars, airplanes, boats and time-shares -- ex-spouses are fighting over all this and more in increasingly complex Silicon Valley cases. The disputes can make Hollywood divorces look small-time.

Wed this area's high cost of living with the soaring value of couples' assets and the result, family law attorneys say, is that many marriages here are exceptionally difficult to dissolve. Attorneys, judges, mediators, court officers and family counselors are finding that:

 Determining the value of employee benefits such as stock options and how they should be shared is taking more time and costing more.