By Helga Gendell
Part XXV of the Marina del Rey history series continues to address the legal ramifications of then state Sens. Joseph B. Montoya and Alan Robbins, and their connection at the time with Mark Nathanson, a real estate investor and former member of the California Coastal Commission and county Small Craft Harbor Commission.
Part XXIV concluded with the coverage of a court hearing a taped sting recording by an informant. Part XXIV additionally addressed news reports of how Robbins was impacted by the Montoya trial fallout when his voice was heard on that tape.
A Feb. 4, 1990 Los Angeles Times article titled “California Senator Montoya Found Guilty on 7 of 10 Felony Counts,” from the Advance Desk, reported, “State Sen. Joseph Montoya, snared in an elaborate FBI sting operation against political corruption, was found guilty of seven of 10 counts of racketeering, extortion and money laundering in the first felony conviction of a state legislator in 35 years.
“The seven-woman, five-man jury heard eight weeks of testimony and deliberated four days before finding the 50-year-old Democrat from Whittier guilty of accepting money from a bogus company to help ram a bill through the Legislature.
“Montoya will be sentenced April 26. The maximum penalties are 20 years in prison for each count. He also faces $2 million in fines and could forfeit $8,000 that prosecutors said he accepted illegally.”
The Times article continued, “Defense attorney Michael Sands said he would appeal the verdict ‘on every ground we can find. We think there are quite a few.’
“Juror Greg Coumas, a car dealership employee, said the trial left him with misgivings about the state of California politics.
“‘It bothers me,’ he said. ‘There were other legislators that came up (during the trial). It seems likely it doesn’t end here.’”
“Montoya was convicted on five counts of extortion, one count of racketeering and one count of money laundering. The jury found Montoya innocent on three counts of extortion,” reported the Times article.
“A stoic Montoya sat between his lawyers at the front of the heavily guarded courtroom packed with relatives and reporters.
“Asked if he would resign from the Legislature, defense lawyer Sands said, ‘I cannot comment on that at this time. We will have our discussions.’
“‘This case struck a chord with a lot of Californians,’ said U.S. Attorney David Levi, who headed the prosecution team. ‘People care about a case like this.’ Other than to say the investigation of Capitol corruption is still underway, Levi refused to discuss the likelihood of indictments against other lawmakers. But he added, ‘We felt it was very important to win this first case.’”
The Times article continued, “Montoya’s conviction leaves his colleagues facing the sticky legal and political problem of whether to expel him from the Senate.
“Senate leader David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) said he has called an emergency meeting of the Senate Rules Committee to determine Montoya’s fate in the Legislature. He could be expelled from the Senate on a two-thirds vote.
“No lawmaker has been expelled by his colleagues since 1905, when four senators were removed from office on the same day after they were implicated in a bribery scheme,” stated the Times article.
“Since his indictment on May 17, 1989, Montoya has remained in the Senate as chairman of its Business and Professions Committee. The last time a sitting legislator was convicted of a felony was in 1954, when Assemblyman Charles Lyon, a Beverly Hills Republican, was found guilty of bribery in a scandal involving the sale of liquor licenses.
“Montoya’s former top aide, Amiel Jaramillo, was indicted along with his boss. He is due to go on trial March 5.
“During the elaborate sting investigation, the FBI formed two companies seeking special legislation that would have allowed it to obtain cheap, state-backed financing for a proposed shrimp processing plant in West Sacramento.”
The Times article reported, “Undercover agents, posing as company executives, won easy passage of bills in 1986 and 1988. Both were vetoed by Gov. George Deukmejian, who had been tipped off by the FBI.
“In September 1987, a Democratic legislative aide, John Shahabian, was caught allegedly extorting a $20,000 campaign contribution from agents on behalf of his boss, Sen. Paul Carpenter, who is now a Board of Equalization member.
“In exchange for immunity from prosecution, Shahabian agreed to help agents by wearing a hidden tape recorder while he helped shepherd the 1988 bill through the Legislature.”
According to the Times article, “The jury heard a taped conversation of Shahabian asking Montoya to support the bill and the senator’s agreement to accept a $3,000 honorarium from the FBI’s sham company.
“Jurors also saw a secretly videotaped breakfast meeting in which Montoya allegedly stuffed an envelope containing a $3,000 check in his coat pocket.
“Montoya contended during four days on the witness stand that California law permitted him to accept an honorarium for attending the breakfast. The investigation came to light Aug. 24, 1988, as FBI agents searched the offices of Montoya and three other legislators,” stated the Times article.
“The other three, Assembly members Gwen Moore (D-Los Angeles), Pat Nolan (R-Glendale) and Frank Hill (R-Whittier) remain targets of the investigation, along with Carpenter. No other lawmakers have been charged.
“After the search, a federal grand jury continued investigating Montoya. Besides the sting, he was accused in seven other instances of wrongdoing. Prosecutors portrayed Montoya as a man driven to become a millionaire any way he could.
“The jury acquitted Montoya on three extortion counts dealing with charges that he attempted to extort money from actor Ed Asner and the Screen Actors Guild, a recycling company in his district known as the Allan Co., and the California Independent Producers Association, a trade group of natural gas producers.”
The Times article continued, “But the jury convicted Montoya on counts of trying to extort money from prominent sports agent Mike Trope and the National Football League Players Association, who were opposing each other on legislation in 1985.
“Montoya was also convicted of extortion for demanding money from lawyer-lobbyist Gene Livingston, who wanted Montoya to carry a bill protecting the graduates of foreign medical schools.
“An official of the California Oil and Gas Association said Montoya, after voting in favor of a bill the association wanted passed, asked a lobbyist to make sure that a campaign contribution had been made. But the jury acquitted Montoya of extortion in that incident,” reported the Times article.
In a Feb. 11, 1990 Los Angeles Times article titled “Brown Pushing for Ban on Honorariums,” reporter Richard C. Paddock wrote, “[Willie Brown] and [David A. Roberti] agreed in separate interviews that pressure on the legislature to act has been intensified by the Feb. 2 conviction of Montoya on seven counts of extortion, racketeering and money laundering. Montoya, who resigned his Senate seat, was found guilty by a federal court jury of using his position to extract honorariums and campaign contributions from people with business before the Legislature.
“Now, Brown said, Montoya’s infamous videotaped breakfast at Pennisi’s Café here has made it politically unacceptable for legislators to take honorariums, even as speaking fees for legitimate appearances.
“Brown, who has long been at odds with Montoya, said a ban on honorariums for legislators would be ‘Joe Montoya’s ultimate revenge.’”
In a July 9, 1990 Los Angeles Times article titled, “Robbins Retains Financial Stake in Development Project,” reporters Jeffrey L. Rabin and Jack Cheevers wrote, “State Sen. Alan Robbins, whose sale of 16 acres of choice land in Venice last year was portrayed as an effort to end a controversy over a massive regional shopping center he had tried to develop there, has in fact retained a limited interest in the project that replaced it — a $400 million complex of offices, condominiums and apartments called Channel Gateway.
“The Tarzana Democrat’s plan for building a massive regional shopping center, office and residential complex on prime land near Marina del Rey generated intense opposition in 1987 and 1988 in the congested neighborhoods around Lincoln Boulevard.”
The Times article continues, “But the development dream stalled when slow-growth advocate Ruth Galanter upset veteran Los Angeles Councilwoman Pat Russell in the district and Culver City approved zoning for a rival shopping center three blocks away from where Robbins sold the land in March 1989.
“The veteran lawmaker’s involvement and assemblage and then selling the once industrial land in the Oxford Triangle neighborhood has become the subject of an array of civil lawsuits filed in Santa Monica Superior Court,” stated the Times article.
“In court papers, a Newport Beach businessman trying to buy and develop property near the Marina claims that Robbins warned him that he would never get a crucial government permit because Robbins wanted to acquire the land himself.
“Robert Blake also said Robbins boasted that he had Councilwoman Russell ‘tied up’ in connection with his efforts from 1985 to 1987 to buy the 16-acre site. The property is subject to city planning rules.
“Blake’s allegations are contained in documents filed recently as part of a complex web of civil lawsuits involving Blake, Robbins and a wealthy La Jolla car dealer, Jeremy Simms. The three were partners in a 3,800-acre parcel of Ventura County land that sold last year for $22 million. The profits from the sale also are a subject of the suits,” reported the Times article.
“Robbins has said in interviews that Blake’s charges are ‘absolutely absurd’ and that his allegations ‘do not comport with the facts.’
“But the legal fight has served to focus attention on Robbins’ role in the property that lies at the western end of the Marina Expressway, just outside Marina del Rey.”
In a correction regarding acreage of the property sold, dated July 29, 1990, the Times stated that “Robbins’ partnership purchased five acres for $12.2 million and, after acquiring other parcels, sold a total of 16 acres for $45 million to Los Angeles developer Jerome Snyder and his associates in March 1989.”
In a July 17, 1990 Los Angeles Times article titled “Montoya Arrives to Start Prison Term a Day Early,” reporter Paul Jacobs wrote, “Former California state Sen. Joseph B. Montoya quietly entered a federal prison camp in Boron on July 16, 1990, one day before he was scheduled to begin serving a six and one-half year sentence for extortion, racketeering and money laundering.”
In an Oct. 1, 1990 Los Angeles Times article titled, “Sen. Robbins Investigated in Alleged Extortion Case,” reporters Jacobs and Mark Gladstone wrote, “A federal grand jury is investigating allegations that state Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Tarzana) and California Coastal Commissioner Mark L. Nathanson were involved in a scheme to extort $250,000 from a prominent San Diego hotel developer who was trying to block construction of a rival hotel, The Times has learned.
“The developer, Jack Naiman, has told investigators he was startled by the alleged demand for a payoff and tried to resist, but was put into a ‘squeeze’ that led him to pay the bulk of the money — some of it in cash — according to sources familiar with the probe.
“The Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Attorney’s Office here are trying to determine whether the veteran San Fernando Democrat allegedly abused the power of his office for personal gain in violation of state and federal law, sources familiar with the investigation say.”
The Times article continued, “Neither Robbins nor Nathanson has been charged with a crime, and attorneys for both men deny any wrongdoing. But the grand jury is continuing its investigation.
“The allegations were brought to investigators by Naiman and Jeremy Simms, a Robbins business partner from La Jolla who has been battling the legislator in a protracted series of lawsuits.
“Robbins, who is running for reelection, said in a written statement to Times reporters that ‘if allegations of the nature you have described have been made, they are absolutely false.’
“But he added that ‘because the federal investigation is still pending, my legal counsel has requested that I not comment any further at this time.’ He expressed confidence ‘that I will be found to have acted legally and properly at all times.’”
The Times article reported, “In October 1989, Robbins acknowledged in a public document that he had received money from Naiman, but said the payments were part of a loan transaction that also involved Simms. He did not report the transaction in detail.
“Nathanson, the coastal commissioner who also is a subject of the probe, spoke briefly twice with a Times reporter, but referred most questions to his attorney. Nathanson, a real estate broker and consultant, said he has reported all of his income sources on the financial statements that are required to be filed each year with the State Fair Political Practices Commission.”