McVittie, Roguish Pillar Of The San Bernardino/Los Angeles County Establishment, Gone At 8

William J. McVittie, who filled as many roles as would normally fit into two-and-a-half lifetimes while testing the boundaries of both altruism and knavery, proving that both self-service and compassion could overlap, has died.
The son of Irish immigrants, McVittie’s life came across as a story that had been team written by Horatio Alger and Damon Runyon, as he never seemed to abandon his persona as a hustler and half-saint/half-rogue who was obliged over the course of his life to familiarize himself with more than one jail cell but nevertheless made it all the way into a seat in the statehouse before he donned judicial robes. Along the way, he was lionized by some as a noble legal practitioner crusading for his clients and justice, and demonized by others as an accountant who cooked the books for some unsavory business types before he passed the bar and became a slippery and opportunistic lawyer who took advantage of those who had hired him almost as much as he bedeviled those he targeted with his lawsuits and legal filings.
Born on October 15, 1938 in Chicago, McVittie began his studies at the age of 17 at the University of Illinois, Urbana, where he earned a bachelor of science degree in accountancy. In 1959, at the age of 20 he began as a public accountant for Price Waterhouse. In 1960, he went to work for the IRS as a special agent. When Aerojet-General, which had operations in Azusa and Chino Hills at that time, offered him a lucrative assignment as a tax accountant, he came to California.
Uncommonly driven, soon after arriving in the Golden State, McVittie obtained his real estate broker license and began attending law school at USC, graduating in 1964, thereafter moving to Chino. In January 1965, he passed the bar and began work as a lawyer in partnership with John T. Tomlinson Jr. In time, he moved into a partnership with Michael Bidart. In 1971, he became Chino City Attorney, simultaneously serving as the general counsel for the Chino Redevelopment Agency.
In the early 1970s, Larry Walker, who latter became a lawyer himself, then a Chino city councilman, then that city’s mayor, San Bernardino County supervisor and ultimately San Bernardino County’s auditor, controller, tax collector, recorder and treasurer, clerked for McVittie. Later, when McVittie became an Assemblyman, Walker worked for him. Jimmy Gutierrez, who was later Chino’s city attorney, became McVittie’s law partner right out of law school.
McVittie was also the owner of a general contracting firm. Most of his customers found his company’s work to be satisfactory. When some others lodged complaints about the quality of the companies performance, McVittie would flex his status as an attorney, and that warded off any claims or lawsuits.
Similarly, many of his clients found McVittie to be a competent attorney who diligently followed through on whatever he needed to do when going to bat for them. Some, however, found his focus to be lacking. His status in the community and his authority as a lawyer, to say nothing of his contacts in the legal profession, rendered McVittie virtually invulnerable to charges that he had ever engaged in shoddy representation. Whenever a former client suggested he might pursue a malpractice claim against him, McVittie would counter with a threat of legal action against the client.
In 1974, the same year that Jerry Brown succeeded Ronald Reagan as California Governor, McVittie, a Democrat, was elected assemblyman in the 65th Assembly District, and thereafter served three 2-year terms in the lower house of the state legislature. Before the voters consented to send him to Sacramento, however, and during the course of his campaign, McVittie found himself on what at least appeared to be the wrong side of the law, which included him twice being arrested.
The first of these arrests was effectuated on September 26, 1974, when he was jailed and charged with what was tantamount to bribery for having allegedly solicited workers who had been deputized by the county registrar of voters to fill out the county’s voter rolls “to accept an emolument, gratuity or reward,” compounded by his having “aided, abetted or counseled a public employee in the commission of a misdemeanor.” The gist of the purported offense consisted of McVittie having created an account, which he endowed with $500, for the purpose of paying those registering voters a “bonus” of 40 cents for every Democrat they registered in the 65th Assembly District, where he happened to be running as the Democrats’ standard bearer. This “bonus” was intended to supplement the 35 cents provided by the State of California and the 10 cents the County of San Bernardino paid for every voter registered, irrespective of the voter’s party affiliation.
Less than a month later, as the race for 65th Assembly District was approaching the clubhouse turn, McVittie was again picked up on October 18, 1974, for failing to fill out and return a campaign finance disclosure form he was required as a candidate to file under California’s then-recently passed Political Reform Act.
On October 25, 1974, McVittie appeared in Ontario Municipal Court, located on Mountain Avenue just below the 10 Freeway, to answer the charges. When McVittie and the lawyer representing him pointed out that there was a technical flaw in the prosecutor’s pleading relating to the offering of a gratuity or bribe to a public official, the judge hearing the case dismissed the charges without prejudice on that basis, which gave the district attorney’s office the option of refiling the matter. As it turned out, the district attorney’s office did not seek to reinstate the case. With regard to the California Reform Act violation, the district attorney’s office, conscious that scores or even hundreds of office holders, politicians or candidates up and down the state had not complied with that particular reporting requirement primarily because it had just been enacted and the forms for making such a filing were generally not available, made a motion to dismiss the charges and the court granted that request.
Opinions differ as to whether McVittie was guilty of the crimes he was arrested for and initially charged with, and those differences in some measure divide along partisan lines. The San Bernardino County district attorney at that time was Lowell Lathrop, a Republican. Leo T. McCarthy, a Democrat and the Assembly Speaker at that time, just before the election that sent both Jerry Brown and McVittie to Sacramento as the governor and as a legislator, respectively, stated that the charges brought against McVittie constituted an illegitimate and politically motivated prosecutorial objective, which was itself part of a criminal conspiracy involving Lathrop to influence the 65th Assembly District’s voters to vote for McVittie’s Republican opponent.
If indeed that was Lathrop’s intent, the district attorney did not achieve his goal, as McVittie was elected.
Among McVittie’s assignments while in the Assembly were those with the Judiciary and Ways and Means committees. While in the legislature, he enjoyed a close working relationship with Ruben Ayala, a Democrat and the former Chino mayor and former county supervisor who was then the 32nd District California state senator, much of whose district overlapped with McVittie’s.
Throughout all of this time, McVittie remained as a member of the bar and maintained his real estate brokerage license. As a real estate professional, McVittie had a reputation of catering to poor and unsophisticated hopeful homebuyers in the Chino community, many of them Hispanic. McVittie was much sought after in this regard, as he seemed to hold out, and actually for a time would deliver on, making home ownership possible for those who otherwise were unable to achieve that goal. Upon gaining his clients’ trust and getting them to divulge to him all of the particulars with regard to their financial means and history, he would typically present to them a purchase agreement that was calculated to be just within their means, often containing a balloon payment or other conditions the buyers were not equipped to understand but which McVittie recognized would render them unable at some point to service their debt. He would have them sign a first trust deed in the bargain. In virtually every case, a few years would go by, and like clockwork, the buyers would default on their loans. At that point, McVittie would swoop in and take possession of the property and then assign the trust deed to another party, reaping a profit in doing so.
Considered to be a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, by 1979 there was discussion among members of Governor Brown’s senior staff and his appointments secretary about elevating McVittie, who was then chairman of the Assembly’s Criminal Justice Committee, to the bench, that is, appointing him to a judgeship. When word reached San Bernardino County about the prospect of McVittie becoming a judge, there was a stir among lawyers in the county and the legal community in general, including some sitting judges. As rumors intensified that McVittie was to be appointed to a position on the San Bernardino County bench, the San Bernardino Bar Association rated McVittie as not qualified for a judgeship, and in reaction to that, Jerry Brown’s chief of staff, Gray Davis, who later became governor himself, publicly stated on March 4, 1980 that McVittie’s appointment to a judgeship was “not imminent.” Three days later, Governor Brown appointed him as a judge. Governor Brown did not, however appoint McVittie to a newly created position on the San Bernardino Superior Court but to a then-vacant existing position the Los Angeles County Superior Court.
Perhaps because of the controversy that was swirling about him, McVittie did not immediately resign from the legislature to don judge’s robes, remaining in the Assembly for more than nine months, right up to the end of that year’s legislative session, while simultaneously earning his master of law degree in dispute resolution from Pepperdine University, before moving to take on the judicial assignment.
Less than two years later, Citrus Municipal Court Judge Eugene Osko, sensing that McVittie might be vulnerable because of the unqualified rating he had received from the San Bernardino County Bar Association, challenged McVittie in the 1982 election. Things did not go well for Osko, however. In making its evaluation of both judges, the Los Angeles County Bar Association rated McVittie “well qualified,” while referring to Osko as “not qualified.” In the election, McVittie trounced Osko 658,948 votes to 338,036, or 66 percent to 34 percent.
McViittie’s courtroom was in the Pomona Courthouse, where his calendar consisted primarily of civil cases, but which included a smattering of criminal cases, as well. In 1985 and 1986, he took on a far heavier load of criminal cases. From 1986 until 1989, he was a judge in the Juvenile Court.
As a judge, McVittie earned relatively high marks from the lawyers who appeared before him, including prosecutors and defense attorneys, plaintiff attorneys and civil defense attorneys, as a very patient jurist.
In 1993 he married Sandra Elliott.
McVittie remained on the bench for two decades. Upon retirement, McVittie let his bar license lapse. Having previously moved to Claremont while he was serving as a judge at Pomona Superior Court, he matriculated at Claremont Graduate University, obtaining a masters degree in politics in 2002. He then engaged in further study at the California Judicial College, National Judicial College, and the University of Kansas Law and Economics Institute before obtaining his Ph.D. in conflict management from Claremont Graduate University in 2005. He established his own private dispute resolution firm. Throughout the ten years after his retirement as a judge, McVittie worked as a “neutral” with Inland Valley Arbitration and Mediation Services, and taught at several local colleges and law schools, including courses in alternative dispute resolution, corporation law and legal accounting. He conducted settlement conference judicial workshops for Los Angeles Superior Court judges.
In 2011, he reactivated his license with the California Bar and joined the Homon & Stone law firm as a mediator.
McVittie died from complications from a fall on September 26 at his home on Appian Way in Indian Wells, 19 days before his 82nd birthday. Mr. McVittie is survived by Sandra Elliott, and two stepsons, Brenton and Ryan Elliott.

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