Attorney Who Misspent Clients' $2.7 Million Was at Center of Irvine Election Controversies

baweja.jpgThe Register's Greg Hardesty has the scoop on 38-year-old Irvine attorney Sandeep Baweja admitting to burning through nearly all of a $2.7-million settlement that was supposed to be shared by about 1,000 plaintiffs he represented in a class-action labor lawsuit.

According to the story, Baweja played the dumb card, saying he invested the money in the stock market without knowing what he was doing, apologizing for his knuckleheaded conduct in papers filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles and remorsefully vowing to notify prosecuting authorities and the State Bar of California of his actions and comply with their investigators. Disbarment and criminal charges have yet to be filed, but he could face both. His Baweja Law Group has offices in Irvine, Los Angeles and San Diego.

Baweja was on the Weekly's radar during the days, weeks and months leading up to Irvine's November city elections. At the urging of then-City Councilman Sukhee Kang, who was campaigning for the mayor's seat, the council donated $1 million in taxpayer funds held in reserve to the Irvine Public Schools Foundation, ostensibly for cash-strapped schools. Baweja sits on the board of the foundation, one of the largest education non-profits in California. After the city grant, the foundation was set to host a campaign fund-raiser for Kang and his council colleagues Beth Krom and Larry Agran. Media exposure over the inappropriateness of a nonproft holding a political event killed it.

During the campaign, Councilwoman Christina Shea, who ultimately lost the mayor's race to Kang, called on the foundation to immediately release the city funds to schools, something she alleged had not yet been done. Kang deflected those concerns by labeling himself the education candidate (and now education mayor) and Shea and others as being anti-schools.

If a fellow who now essentially admits to mishandling $2.7 million in other people's money being that close to $1 million in taxpayer money directed to a nonprofit is troubling, get a load of this: Baweja was listed as the TREASURER!!! of Irvine's Yes on R and S campaigns.
R, which validated the council's handling of the Great Park, and S, an "ethics" reform to restrict the use of e-mail addresses the city collects, both sailed to victory. Their main source of funding was a controversial fake newspaper called Irvine Community News and Views, which was actually a slate mailer for the campaigns of R, S, Agran, Krom, Kang, upstart candidate Todd Gallinger. The city caps individual contributions to candidates, but independent-expenditure committees can contribute unlimited amounts to ballot initiatives.

Baweja's most showy election role came at a Sept. 23 City Council meeting, where he was among the speakers lashing out at Councilman Steven Choi's "racism" at a candidate forum five days earlier. Choi had criticized Gallinger, an attorney and Muslim convert, for having represented "a dangerous Islamic organization," the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). When Gallinger revealed to the media that his office received a death threat days after Choi made those remarks, the incident received international attention and has been listed by some civil rights groups as among the most hateful things to have happened in the U.S. in 2008.

According to intrepid Irvine city watcher Stephen C. Smith of Irvine Tattler fame, Baweja's office is next door to Gallinger's.

Irvine's election is not the only one Baweja has been involved in. Having grown up in Seattle after immigrating to the U.S. from India at age 3, he was field coordinator for Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign in Seattle.
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