BY HELGA GENDELL
Part XXVI of the Marina del Rey history series continues to address the reporting of 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 XXV concluded with an Oct. 1, 1990 Los Angeles Times article titled “Sen. Alan Robbins Investigated in Alleged Extortion Case,” by reporters Paul Jacobs and Mark Gladstone. They wrote that a federal grand jury was investigating allegations that Robbins and Nathanson were involved in a scheme to extort
$250,000 from a prominent San Diego hotel developer, Jack Naiman, who was trying to block construction of a rival hotel.
According to the Times article, Nathanson had told a reporter that he had 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.
The Times article reported, “The records on file with that watchdog agency show no payments from developer Naiman to Nathanson.
“Nathanson’s attorney, Robert L. Shapiro, said Nathanson ‘certainly did not extort money from Jack Naiman or anyone else.’”
The Times article continued, “U.S. Attorney David F. Levi would not comment on the allegations or even confirm whether there is an investigation. However, other authoritative sources said the federal probe of Robbins began at least two years ago as an outgrowth of an FBI sting operation to root out corruption in the state Capitol. In recent months, investigators have questioned Robbins’ legislative staff, his business partners and several lobbyists.
A number of Robbins’ associates have been questioned by the grand jury.
“Federal authorities have subpoenaed Robbins’ financial records, and the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) has been contacting many of his campaign contributors.
“In the course of the wideranging investigation, the grand jury also has been looking at how the lawmaker acquired an interest in 1987 in a much-coveted Acura car dealership in the San Diego area as American Honda Motor Co. Inc. was introducing the upscale automobile. Robbins’ profit for about a year has been estimated at between $150,000 and $190,000 by people familiar with the deal,” the Times article reported.
“Other matters under federal scrutiny include Robbins’ ties to an exotic car rental operation in Marina del Rey, his private land deals around the Marina and in Ventura County, and a bill that could have affected his financial holdings in the Marina,” according to the Times.
“In addition to the ongoing federal probe, Robbins is the subject of an investigation by the state attorney general’s office, which is trying to determine whether the lawmaker violated statutes barring the personal use of campaign funds.
“At least partly in response to the federal and state investigation, Robbins’ campaign committees reported paying about $170,000 in the first six moths of 1990 to law firms in San Diego, Los Angeles and Sacramento, according to the committees’ campaign filings.”
The Times article continues, “During his sometimes turbulent 17 years in the Senate, Robbins, has proven to be a politician of considerable resilience.
“Respected for his quick mind and unflagging energy, he has managed to keep a series of complicated private business deals in motion while juggling a heavy legislative load.
“Now, federal investigators, looking at Robbins’ various activities, have turned much of their attention to his behind-the-scenes role in what apparently started as a dispute over development in the booming San Diego hotel market,”
stated the Times article.
“Several people familiar with the probe agreed to talk to the Times on condition they not be identified. These sources said an account of Robbins’ and Nathanson’s alleged involvement in the hotel controversy has been presented to the federal grand jury.
“The struggle over the hotel began in 1987 when San Diego businessman Jack Naiman, after five years of planning, was securing the financing he needed for his Aventine project – an office building, athletic club and hotelrestaurant complex in La Jolla just off the I-5 Freeway.”
The Times article reported, “With the future of the $150 million project still unsettled, Naiman became concerned about a competing proposal. Plans were being made for a Sheraton hotel a few miles away on city-owned land – a picturesque ocean-view site overlooking the Torrey Pines Municipal Golf Course.
“The 48-year-old Naiman, born in Lima, Peru, is described as a restless entrepreneur and a connoisseur of art and architecture.
Naiman also dabbled in politics, donating money to several political candidates, mainly Democrats, including $2,500 to Robbins.
“It was in 1987, with a fight looming over the Sheraton proposal, that Naiman turned to businessman Simms for help, according to sources. A former Pasadena car dealer, Simms was Naiman’s friend, neighbor and sometimes-business associate who had provided substantial loans to Naiman, according to public records.”
The Times article continues, “With the encouragement of Naiman, Simms led a well-funded campaign to oppose construction of the Sheraton and was the spokesman for Friends of Torrey Pines, which stressed that the proposed Sheraton was in the flight path of jets taking off from the Miramar Naval Air Station.
“Simms also was a friend and business partner of Robbins. The one-time auto dealer has made substantial contributions to political campaigns, including $3,000 to Robbins. At one point in 1980,
Simms let Robbins stay at his home for several months after the lawmaker’s separation from his wife.
“In 1987, Simms made personal loans of $600,000 and $350,000 to Robbins when the legislator-businessman was strapped for cash, Simms stated in a court declaration. But Robbins and Simms are now locked in legal combat, having filed suits and countersuits over millions of dollars in property investments.
Despite Simms’ spirited public relations efforts to kill the Sheraton deal, the San Diego City Council approved plans for the hotel. But the Sheraton still needed Coastal Commission approval before construction could begin,” stated the Times article.
“It was Simms who suggested that Naiman contact Robbins in the hope of getting the lawmaker’s help in blocking the rival hotel when it came before the commission, sources said. According to this account, when Naiman did contact Robbins, the senator said he thought he could be helpful in assisting the ‘stop the-Sheraton effort.’ At this point, Robbins’ reasons for offering help were not clear. There was no direct request for money, the sources said, but Robbins allegedly suggested there might be some expenses in connection with the Coastal Commission fight,” according to the Times.
“Some time later, according to this version of events, Coastal Commissioner Nathanson entered the discussions about the Sheraton by contacting Simms.
Nathanson is a Beverly Hillsbased real estate broker with extensive political ties; he has been appointed to a number of public positions.”
The Times article continues, “Nathanson has had problems with authorities in the past. In 1974, after resigning from the Los Angeles building and Safety Commission, he was charged with grand theft for allegedly accepting $2,500 from a Hollywood businessman in connection with a zone change. Nathanson pleaded no contest to the charge, but insisted that he had acted properly and had never solicited a bribe. A judge reduced the sentence to a misdemeanor and sentenced him
to three years probation.
“In 1986, Nathanson was fined $13,400 by the state Fair Political Practices Commission for failing to disclose millions of dollars in business interests while serving as a member of the Little Hoover Commission. When Nathanson called Simms, the coastal commissioner was allegedly angry and pointed to the steps that had already been taken on Naiman’s behalf to stop the Sheraton. Apparently unaware of Robbins and Naiman’s previous conversation, Nathanson told Simms it was urgent for Naiman to keep his promise to get back to Robbins again, this time in person. There was no discussion of money,” the Times article stated.
“Neither Nathanson nor his lawyer would answer questions about the coastal commissioner’s involvement in the Sheraton dispute.
Nor would they confirm or deny that the conversation with Simms ever took place.
“But as this version of events continues, Nathanson’s agitation so puzzled Simms that he quickly contacted Naiman and urged him to meet with Robbins. It was then, at a meeting in Sacramento, that Robbins allegedly told Naiman he would have to pay $250,000 for lining up the support needed to stop the Sheraton.
As one source described it, Robbins ‘put the bite on him.’ “Not wanting to go along,
Naiman called off the effort to block the competing hotel, investigators have been told. But Robbins allegedly told Naiman that he would have to pay anyway, and that if he did not, he would have trouble doing business in California again.”
The Times article reported, “Fearing the veteran lawmaker could follow through on what Naiman saw as a threat, the developer began making payments, according to sources familiar with the allegations made to federal investigators.
“The Sheraton hotel proposal was unanimously approved in September 1987, by the 12-member Coastal Commission, including Nathanson, without any debate and with no indication that there had been any attempt to affect the outcome. And, despite the competition, Naiman was
able to secure his financing and complete the construction of the Aventine projects, including a Hyatt Regency Hotel.
“Naiman could not be reached by reporters. An aide said he would have no comment on the allegations. Simms also refused to comment,” according to the Times article.
“Initially, Robbins allegedly failed to report any payments from Naiman on his annual financial disclosure statements required by state law. But Robbins later revised his 1988 declaration to report that part of a Simms loan of ‘over $10,000’ was ‘transmitted’ to the senator by Naiman.
The disclosure statement required no elaboration, and Robbins did not have to reveal the exact amount of the loan.
“Sources familiar with the alleged transaction said Simms denies Naiman was acting on his behalf when making payments to Robbins. Robbins believes the federal investigation of the allegations is the result of a rancorous business dispute between him and Simms, according to an attorney familiar with Robbins’ legal position.
“About a year ago, an attorney for Robbins wrote U.S. Attorney Levi complaining that Simms was making ‘untrue accusations’ about the lawmaker. Attorney Paul H. Rochmes asserted that Simms’ accusations were ‘baseless’ and represented an attempt to pressure Robbins into paying Simms ‘several million dollars’ to settle their business dispute.”
The Times article continues, “Also of interest to investigators is how the San Fernando legislator wound up with a share of the National City Acura dealership, which he parlayed into a six figure profit within a year, sources said. The federal authorities are trying to determine whether Robbins’ participation in the deal was related to his legislative activities, and thus may have involved an abuse of public office.
“One focal point for investigators is a 1984 bill by then-Assemblyman
Bruce Young (D-Norwalk), which would have forced Honda and other manufacturers of all-terrain vehicles to sell their products exclusively through franchise dealers. At the time,
Honda and the other manufacturers were selling three-wheel, allterrain
vehicles through various types of outlets, not just franchise dealers.
“Robbins gained the attention of Honda and its lobbyists by sponsoring in the Senate the dealer franchise bill that Honda opposed.
After a bitter fight, the measure went down to defeat, representing a major victory for the auto manufacturer.”
According to the Times article, “Three years later, Robbins wanted an Acura dealership, and Honda inexplicably allowed their one-time foe to acquire an interest in one.
“Collaborating with ex-car dealer Simms to obtain an Acura dealership, Robbins enlisted the help of Honda lobbyist Paul Priolo, a former Assembly Republican leader and legislative colleague.
Sources said Priolo provided helpful ‘information,’ but they disagree over whether it was crucial to Robbins.
“The state Political Reform Act prohibits a lobbyist from ‘doing anything with the purpose of placing any state elected official… under personal obligation to the lobbyist.’ Priolo could not be reached for comment,” stated the Times article.
“Even before the dealership opened its doors, Robbins and Simms sold the controlling interest to Robert H. (Bob) Baker, a National City auto dealer. Baker told The Times he had presented plans from a dealership to Honda and ‘it was understood to deal with Robbins and Simms.’ Baker
said he eventually paid the two men about $330,000. Baker also said Robbins’ investment in the dealership was $30,000, which matched a ‘consulting fee’ he already had paid the legislator,” the Times reported.
“Baker and Harold Tipton, another San Diego area car dealer who participated in the deal, have testified before the grand jury, according to Baker and other sources.
“James J. Short, an attorney for American Honda, said in a prepared statement that the company also ‘had been subpoenaed by a federal grand jury in Sacramento to provide information concerning Sen. Robbins and had fully cooperated with the request,” the Times article stated.
“Short said he has been assured Honda is not a target of the grand jury investigation. He denied that ‘the company had either given or sought any special treatment to or from the senator.’
“The federal investigators first began looking at Robbins as part of a sting operation known as Brispec (for bribery-special interest), in which undercover FBI agents posed as businessmen seeking legislation to help them start a shrimp company processing plant near Sacramento. The federal probe has resulted in the conviction of ex-Sens. Joseph B. Montoya (De-Whittier) and Paul Carpenter (D-Norwalk) on political corruption charges.”
“Over the last two years, federal authorities have been gathering information about a number of other activities involving Robbins, including: The senator’s alleged efforts to solicit campaign contributions from osteopathic physicians. In 1985, the Osteopathic Physicians & Surgeons of
California had a bill pending before the Senate Insurance, Claims and Corporations Committee, which Robbins chaired. Ex-Sen. Montoya testified during his trial that Robbins wanted a contribution from the osteopaths. The measure backed by the group was intended to stop discrimination against osteopaths by health maintenance organizations. The
lobbyist for the group, Matthew Weyuker, said he refused to send a contribution to Robbins, who voted for the measure in his committee anyway. The bill later died in another committee.”
Other activities involving Robbins, according to the Times: “The lawmaker’s dealings with the Beverly Hills Car Collection, an exotic car rental agency with a branch near Marina del Rey. Federal authorities are looking at allegations that Robbins was able to obtain special deals from the agency for political associates and personal friends. The chief executive of the company, Allan J. Siemons, has been questioned by federal authorities, according to sources. Siemons declined to comment on those discussions.
“A 1985 bill, carried by Sen. Montoya, that limited the ability of tenants in Marina del Rey to incorporate their community and impose rent control on apartments.
The measure passed and stopped the incorporation drive in its tracks — to the benefit of Robbins and others who lease county-owned land in the Marina.
Robbins abstained from voting on the bill, citing a conflict of interest.