A man charged with illegal mining in a San Fernando Valley neighborhood and fined $650,000 was jailed Friday for failing to produce his financial records, a city attorney said.
Moshe Zemach, who pleaded no contest nearly seven years ago for operating what the Los Angeles City Attorney's office called an illegal surface mine in the Shadow Hills community declined to bring his tax and other financial records to a Van Nuys courtroom Friday morning, so Superior Court Judge Alan Schneider sent him to jail where he is being held on a $100,000 bond.
"It only took about 30 seconds," Don Cocek, a Los Angeles City attorney said of Friday's proceedings.
The judge's quick decision brought a sense of surprise and some justice to Shadow Hills residents, who said they watched with frustration for years as Zemach has stalled the court. He has yet to produce the $650,000 fine that would go toward community improvements, as well as documents listing his finances that will determine whether he can afford the fine.
Residents have said Zemach bought the 3.4 acres at 10148 Wealtha Ave. in 2005 to build six luxury homes.
Instead, neighbors said he brought in bulldozers, rock crushers and 18-wheel gravel loaders to haul sand and gravel, which eventually produced a 50-foot-deep pit.
In 2006, the City Attorney's office filed 31 misdemeanor criminal charges against Zemach and the companies he owned. He pleaded no contest and was ordered to contribute $650,000 in mining profits into a trust fund for community improvements.
But his attorney, Robert Pellinen, said Friday Zemach was ill-advised by another lawyer back then, and his client never should have agreed to the plea. Pellinen also said the original fine was too steep, that the zoning ordinances were misinterpreted and that the judge on Friday didn't read through the files, nor was he willing to hear any arguments.
"We're not asking the case be dismissed but to have the plea changed," Pellinen said. "It's like there's an alliance between the city attorney and the court."
To date, Zemach appears to be the only person charged for illegal mining in Los Angeles, he added. "It's not even crime. The statute doesn't apply to Zemach because he's a contractor."
Pellinen said his client will likely post bail, and he plans to file a declaratory action to the state Attorney General's office and the City Attorney to have the ordinance deemed unconstitutional.
The case has involved three City Council members, five Superior Court judges and several attorneys hired and fired by Zemach, including famed defense lawyer Mark Geragos.
Cocek said despite the length of time it has taken to bring Zemach to justice, the residents who have followed the case feel some justification. "The people in the neighborhood have taken this very seriously -- and the court, too."
Members of the Shadow Hills Property Owners Association and the Foothill Trails District Neighborhood Council said a construction trailer, piles of rocks and a ratty, dilapidated fence remain on the property that they believe has been sold to an outside investor.
Mary Benson, who doesn't live far from the property, said she felt a sense of victory by the judge's decision to send Zemach to jail. "He has been thumbing his nose at the city and justice system," she said. "Neither the city nor the residents have been able to bring this man to justice for seven years."
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