When plumber Robert Thompson took a job testing for hazardous backflow at the law offices of then-private attorney Gary Kreep, he could never have guessed the amount of crap it would eventually lead to.
After years of legal wrangling and court fees, Thompson filed in March a civil lawsuit against Kreep in a last-ditch attempt to collect thousands of dollars that Thompson claims he was shorted.
"If I was not in a financial situation to follow up on this, I would have had to give up," Thompson said. "He would have just ran me out of money."
A victim of the 2007 Witch Creek wildfire, Thompson, after the blaze, stored the remnants of his home in a sea-cargo container on his 20-acre property in Ramona.
However, because he didn't have a permit for the structure, the county fined him several hundred dollars.
At the same time, Thompson was having trouble getting the permits from the county needed to remove the container and rebuild his house, according to court documents. Caught in something of a bureaucratic quagmire, he racked up $800 in county fines.
Believing the county had wronged him, Thompson reached out in 2010 to the lawyers at the building where he'd recently done plumbing work—the Law Office of Gary G. Kreep.
Now a sitting San Diego Superior Court Judge, Kreep has become something of a notorious character. Most recently, he was forced to spend three months working in traffic court after prosecutors complained about his temper and conduct and threatened to boycott his courtroom. It was an unusual assignment for a judge who makes roughly $180,000 a year. He's since been reassigned to handle landlord-tenant disputes.
Elected in 2012 on a slim margin of victory, Kreep's best known as a vocal right-wing activist and "birther," publicly questioning whether President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Since 1979, he helped found and was a leading member of the United States Justice Foundation, a conservative nonprofit that views itself as a counterweight to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Attorney Kreep was "enthusiastic" about taking the case, Thompson said. "He told me he was an expert in dealing with government agencies. He promised me that I would get all of my money back and possibly get a judgment against the county because they had violated the law."
Officially retained by Thompson in July 2011, Kreep filed a petition seeking to overturn a $500 fine and collect more than $64,000 in out-of-pocket damages allegedly resulting from the county's failure to issue a building permit, according to court documents. The petition also sought attorney fees and court costs.
After almost a year, the county responded by conceding that the fine had been improperly issued, but it denied the claim for damages. The court notified Kreep that the case would be dismissed unless further action was taken, and on July 31, 2012, the case was dismissed without prejudice.
"He failed to appear," Thompson said. "He failed to stay in contact with the court. Basically, that's what happened."
To the tune of about $20,000 in legal fees, Kreep got the county to drop a $500 fine.
"I felt like I had been flimflammed," Thompson said. "I had been paying money, and not only not getting anything for it, but he was not doing anything for it."
Despite several attempts by CityBeat to contact Kreep, via calls to his courtroom and his former law office and through his professional and personal email addresses, he could not be reached for comment by press time.
Shortly after Thompson's case with the county was closed, he filed a complaint against Kreep with the California State Bar Association. As a result, a fee-arbitration committee found last November that Kreep had significantly overbilled for his services and called the former private attorney's legal strategy "troubling."
"Attorney Kreep acknowledges substantial problems with the likelihood of success of that strategy in view of statutes of limitation applicable ." the arbitration committee wrote in its findings.
When the court asked for billing records, Kreep claimed that his computer had malfunctioned and wiped out most of the information, according to court documents. Kreep then produced a billing statement from July 2012, which the arbitration committee found to "suffer from vaguery," describing one entry as "inexplicable."
"The evidence supports the conclusion that [the] client's claims are, in large part, well-founded," the arbitration committee wrote. "Attorney Kreep was unable to present an accounting of the services and charges applicable to the client's matter ."
After subtracting an estimated amount of fees and costs that could have been reasonably charged, the bar association directed Kreep to reimburse Thompson $14,914.65.
However, despite the ruling, Thompson has yet to get paid.
In recent months, Kreep has sent his former client a series of problematic checks, Thompson said. The first check was issued by "Law Office of Gary G. Kreep Attorney / Client Trust Account," which after receiving, Thompson said, he was asked not to cash by one of Kreep's assistants.
Then Kreep sent three more checks for the entire sum that were made out to an old business of Thompson's that he hadn't used since before he met Kreep, Thompson said. The plumber expressed concern that cashing the checks would mean paying taxes on the money as income and has requested payments to be made directly to his personal account.
"He sent me three additional checks but they're made out to Robert Thompson Company, an old business I had eight years ago," he said. "I can't even deposit them in a savings account."
Thompson said he's been unable to reach Kreep.
In such cases, the California State Bar Association would normally have discretion to place the offending attorney on inactive status until the debt's repaid. However, be cause Kreep is now a judge, he's avoided such a repercussion.
In response to a letter that Thompson sent directly to the San Diego Superior Court, Presiding Judge David Danielsen wrote to encourage Thompson to obtain legal advice and "act promptly" in order to collect on "what appears to be a straightforward judgment."
Now, Thompson, who's representing himself in court, has filed a civil lawsuit to try to get his money back, plus court fees. Under the law, a judge from outside the county jurisdiction will likely have to preside over the trial if it moves forward.
While the court battle continues to play out, Thompson said he's losing faith in the justice system and isn't confident he'll ever be reimbursed.
"Can you imagine all the things Kreep's done, and he's sitting in judgment on your behavior?" Thompson said. "It's almost crazy that he's signing judgments to make other people pay when he won't pay his own. Something's got to be wrong that he can do this."