in connection with statements made by an applicant
for the bench, said commission director and chief counsel Victoria Henley.
The commission accuses Couwenberg of lying about where he attended
school, what degrees he earned, his employment history and his military record, including
claims that he served in Vietnam, received a Purple Heart and participated in covert CIA
operations in southeast Asia and Africa. He also is accused of omitting some information,
including failing the bar examination five times.
In a six-count notice, Couwenberg, 55, is charged with violating
three canons of the Code of Judicial Ethics: canon 1, upholding the integrity of the
judiciary; canon 2A, promoting public confidence in the judiciary; and canon 5B, knowingly
misrepresenting his qualifications.
In a written response to the allegations, Couwenberg stood by the
story he told commission lawyers in January about his participation in the mysterious
covert operations, said some of the details about his background were given during
informal or humorous conversations, could not recall or specifically denied other claims,
and admitted that some information on questionnaires submitted in connection with his
application to be a judge were not true. He said none of the information or testimony was
According to the commissions notice, Couwenberg provided false
information on the Personal Data Questionnaire (PDQ) submitted to the governors
office when he was seeking an appointment to the bench in 1996 and on a judges
questionnaire filled out before he was sworn in in 1997, made misstatements about his
background to another judge and to a group of attorneys in the courthouse, and gave false
information to the commission in both testimony and by letter.
Couwenbergs PDQ said he attended Cal. St. University L.A.
for two years and received a masters degree, and stated that he went to LaVerne
College Law Center from 1973 to 1976. In fact, the commission charges, he attended LaVerne
from 1970 to 1973 and was admitted to the State Bar in 1976 after failing the bar exam
He also incorrectly said he attended Loyola Law School, misstated the
dates he attended California State Polytechnic University, and omitted his attendance at
two other schools, according to the charges. Further, the charges allege he never attended
Cal State Los Angeles nor received a masters degree from any school.
Couwenberg made similar misstatements in a judges data
questionnaire filled out just before he was sworn in as a judge, the commission charges.
In that questionnaire, he falsely stated he was awarded a bachelor of science degree from
the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and incorrectly listed Gibson, Dunn
& Crutcher as a previous employer, according to the charges.
He also said he served in the Navy, when in fact he was in the Naval
Reserves, and claimed membership in the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a group for which he was
ineligible, the commission says.
In an interview with another judge in preparation for his August 1997
swearing-in ceremony, the charges allege, Couwenberg said he had been a corporal in the
Army, served in Vietnam for 16 months, and was awarded a Purple Heart. None of that
information is true, the commission charges.
Implied combat injury
Later that same year, according to the charges, Couwenberg said from
the bench he was late for court because of a medical appointment for shrapnel in his
groin, implying that you had been wounded in military combat. (You had never
received such an injury.) The charges also allege that Couwenberg falsely told
attorneys he had attended college on the GI bill and has a masters degree in
In two letters to the commission in 1998 and 1999, the commission
charges Couwenberg falsely implied participation in covert CIA operations in Vietnam
Appearing in the commissions offices last January, Couwenberg
reiterated his CIA connections in southeast Asia and added that he made a delivery
of funds or documents for the CIA in or about 1984 to a person in Africa, according
to the charges. You had not been affiliated with the CIA as you testified, nor had
you been with the CIA in any capacity at any time.
Bogus education claims
In addition, Couwenberg testified under oath that he received a
masters degree in psychology from Cal State University at Los Angeles; the charges
say he never attended the school or has a masters degree of any kind.
In his response to the charges, Couwenberg stood by the covert
operation story, but said he cannot be sure what government organization sent him to
the Far East. It was at best an assumption, and remains a guess, that the agency that
recruited respondent was the CIA.
He also acknowledged that he does not hold a masters degree,
did not serve in the Army in Vietnam, and did not attend Loyola Law School, Cal State Los
Angeles or Caltech. Nor was he injured in combat overseas and he did not receive the
Couwenberg denied that he deliberately misstated his credentials, and
attributed some of the information to be the result of misunderstandings or humorous
exchanges. He denied saying he served in Vietnam in the Army or that he received a Purple
Heart. He was in southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, he said.
According to Biljanna Sivanov, a staffer for the Commission on
Judicial Appointments Evaluation, the educational and military backgrounds listed on
resumes submitted to the governors office and JNE are not verified.
JNE examines candidates membership records with the State Bar,
which lists undergraduate and law school information. The bars admissions
office contacts law schools, verifies dates of attendance and receives transcripts.
Admissions applications are submitted under penalty of perjury.
The bars membership office, however, does not verify academic
information, nor is that information submitted under penalty of perjury, although the
attorney must declare the information is correct.
Sivanov said JNE and the governors office are considering
revisions to the judicial selection process, including verifying academic and military
records and requiring candidates to submit applications under penalty of perjury.
Sivanov said JNE routinely sends out 400 or more letters seeking
comment about judicial applicants, but does not monitor how many are returned. A firm
listed as a previous employer may or may not have responded and it likely would not know
from a very general letter that it was listed as an employer.
Under Commission on Judicial Performance procedures, the Supreme
Court will appoint a group of special masters to hold a hearing on the charges against
Couwenberg. The commission can remove, censure, publicly admonish or privately reprove a
judge, who can appeal to the Supreme Court.
No hearing has been scheduled.