The third act of con man Steven Kunes’s latest journey through the Santa Barbara criminal court system came to a close Friday when a judge sentenced him to five years in jail for passing forged checks and scamming a onetime friend. He pleaded guilty in November to felony commercial burglary and grand theft by false pretenses.
As part of his plea deal, Kunes — a former Hollywood screenwriter who worked on TV shows in the 1980s like Love Boat and Out of This World — could have been sentenced to four years if he made restitution with his victims: approximately $7,000 to Montecito Bank & Trust and $2,600 to Wally Ronchietto, former owner of Café Buenos Aires. Kunes failed to make the necessary payments, however, and despite assurances from his Ventura-based defense attorney David Lehr that an unnamed benefactor would provide the full sum within a week if the hearing was delayed, Judge William Gordon moved forward with sentencing. Two years were included in Kunes’s sentence because of past prison terms he completed for similar crimes committed in Los Angeles in 2000 and in Santa Barbara in 2007.
Kunes will serve his time in Santa Barbara County Jail instead of state prison because of AB 109, the new California law that allows less serious offenders to be incarcerated in local jurisdictions. He was given credit for 771 total days of time already served — 386 actual days and 385 days of credit for good behavior. Senior Deputy District Attorney Brian Cota said during a previous interview that he expects Kunes to be released early because of the jail’s overcrowding issue. Kunes tried to avoid prosecution in this case by skipping court dates in August and fleeing to New Jersey with his girlfriend. A judge issued a $200,000 bench warrant for his arrest, and New Jersey police apprehended him in September.
As Lehr petitioned Judge Gordon to delay sentencing — which had already been postponed three times — Cota argued that giving Kunes more time to pay his victims would just provide him another opportunity to steal from someone else. He had already been given ample time, he said. Calling him a “pathological liar,” Cota explained how Kunes recently tried to deceive the court:
Kunes told Lehr that his Montecito Bank & Trust victims had been paid back, saying one of his former bosses (now deceased) had put $7,000 in Kunes’s account. The money was then transferred back to the right customers, and that’s why his account showed a zero balance, Kunes said. (Lehr claimed Kunes’s story was mistakenly corroborated by a bank employee who spoke to one of his law office’s paralegals.) It turns out, explained Cota, who followed up with the branch’s manager, the bank had actually zeroed out the account as part its internal collections procedure. “Knowing [Kunes] as I do,” Cota told the court, “I didn’t take his word for it.”
In a later interview, Cota said Lehr tried to pull a fast one himself, asking Cota to participate in a scheduling bait-and-switch so the media wouldn’t cover the hearing. Lehr reportedly planned to put the sentencing on the court calendar but then at the last minute to move it a day earlier. Cota declined to go along. “I wouldn’t engage in an attempt to deceive the press,” he said. It appears Lehr tried the maneuver anyway, advancing last week’s sentencing to Thursday even though it was scheduled for Friday. The court notified The Santa Barbara Independent of the change, and we informed Cota. He hadn’t been told by Lehr and was unaware of the new date. The hearing was nevertheless held on Friday after Lehr sent one of his associates on Thursday to ask for a one-day continuance.
When Judge Gordon denied the request for an additional delay on Friday, Lehr took a different approach. He said Kunes wasn’t provided an adequate defense, admonishing himself for allowing Kunes to sign an Arbuckle waiver as part of the plea agreement. “I had no idea he signed that,” said Lehr. (The waiver allows a defendant to be sentenced by any judge if the case’s original judge isn’t available. It applied in this instance because Gordon was temporarily filling in for Judge Clifford Anderson.) Calling himself “an incompetent counsel” who misadvised his client, Lehr said Anderson would have been more willing to postpone procedures so the victims could be paid back. Cota, he claimed, didn’t care about victims and was only concerned about a quick sentencing and grandstanding for area news outlets.
In a courthouse hallway after the hearing, the two lawyers let each other know how they felt about the other’s professionalism, or supposed lack thereof. Lehr accused Cota of violating the California Constitution, saying the prosecutor let victims’ rights take a backseat to other considerations. Lehr said he was only asking for a few extra days to secure the full restitution amount and that he already had a check for $3,000 in his briefcase for one of the victims. It was provided by an unnamed benefactor, he said, but was to be handed over only if the year was taken off Kunes’s sentence. Lehr said he had directions to return the money to the benefactor if Kunes received the full five-year term. “Now the victims will never get paid,” complained Lehr, explaining Kunes cannot be made to provide restitution while he’s behind bars.
Cota, however, clarified that a civil court judge can order Kunes to pay the money back as soon as he is released from jail. “If he owes restitution, he has to pay it,” he said. He lashed back at Lehr for misrepresenting his duties as a defense attorney, saying he was just using the $3,000 check as a bargaining chip for further delay. Why, Cota asked Lehr, wouldn’t he now do everything in his power to pay off one of the victims while he had the chance? “Do the right thing, David,” he repeated as Lehr kept talking over him. Later, Cota questioned the validity of Lehr’s attacks when he just minutes before voiced serious self-criticism. “It’s rich for him to comment on my job performance when he admits in open court that he’s incompetent,” he said.
Lehr said Kunes has mental health issues and that he struggles to stay balanced when he stops taking his medication. He’s a new grandfather and wants to be back in the free world to reunite with his family. Jail, Lehr went on, is not the appropriate place for his client. He belongs in a mental health-care facility, he stated.
When Kunes passed Cota in the hallway on his way back to jail, he leaned down to the prosecutor and said, “Thank you. That was a fair deal.”