Ex-South Gate treasurer convicted in bribery case
From the Los Angeles Times, 29 July 2005
By David Rosenzweig
Albert Robles, the charismatic and volatile South Gate treasurer who dominated politics in the small, blue-collar city during two tumultuous years, was convicted Thursday of soliciting more than $1.8 million in bribes from bidders on municipal contracts.
Robles, 40, served as an elected official in the predominantly Latino city of 100,000 in southeast Los Angeles County for nearly a dozen years. He became the city's youngest mayor at 26 and essentially gained control of its government late in 2001.
By the time voters rebelled against him, recalling him and three council allies in 2003, the city was near bankruptcy, having lost more than $12 million as a direct result of corruption, prosecutors said.
Money flowed to his brother, to a drug rehabilitation program run by another brother and to the mother of Robles' onetime girlfriend. Robles fired the city attorney and gave the job to his mother's divorce lawyer, who admitted having no experience in government law.
The federal court jury found Robles guilty of 30 counts of bribery, money laundering and depriving the electorate of his honest services.
The defendant appeared sullen when the verdict was announced and declined to comment as he left the courtroom in downtown Los Angeles. His lawyer said he planned an appeal.
South Gate Mayor Greg Martinez was elated at the verdict. "It's going to be fiesta time in the city," he said. "I can't convey how ecstatic we all are today."
Expressing concern that Robles might flee the country in the face of what is likely to be a long prison term, prosecutors asked U.S. District Judge Stephen Wilson to jail him immediately. Technically, Robles could face up to 510 years behind bars, but under federal sentencing guidelines a term of about 10 years is probable, legal experts said.
Wilson said he saw no need to jail Robles now and allowed him to remain free on bond pending sentencing Oct. 24.
Also convicted Thursday was Robles' longtime friend George Garrido, 53, who was accused of receiving $437,500 in payoffs from the recipient of the city's $48-million garbage-hauling contract.
Recognized by critics as well as supporters as keenly intelligent, Robles was known for his natty attire but also for his blunt talk. He once called state Sen. Martha Escutia a pig at the trough and dismissed state Sen. Richard Polanco with an expletive.
"Call me a pit bull, say that I lack tact, say that I'm crude," Robles said in a 2002 interview. "I'm not that suave, go-along, get-along kind of guy. I call a spade a spade. I decided I wasn't going to be a whore of the big guys, the big sharks. The only reason I have these big political enemies is because I do tell them no."
It was while serving as treasurer, an elected post, that Robles gained virtual control of the city's governing body and administration.
In late 2001, three of his loyal supporters formed a new majority bloc on the City Council. With their assured votes, Robles extended his reach into the ranks of city department managers, firing those who refused to do his bidding and promoting those who would, even though his official title granted him no such authority.
Over the next few years, he was accused of corruption, cronyism and mismanagement of public funds. He was indicted in 2004 on the federal corruption charges that resulted in his conviction Thursday.
City Manager Gary Milliman said Robles' and Garrido's actions "caused great harm to the city, not just financially but to its reputation as well."
Milliman said South Gate is $150 million in debt. On Tuesday, the council passed a budget that curtails recreation programs and reduces staffing in various departments. For two years the city has cut staffing in every department except police.
Council meetings during Robles' tenure became raucous affairs, with his critics banging sticks, twirling handcuffs and dangling marionettes '' a reference to his reputation as a puppet master who controlled the council.
One frequent target of the crowd was a councilwoman dubbed the "meow lady" because of her quiet, kitten-like voice. Whenever she tried to speak, critics would meow.
After Robles was tossed out of office, officials discovered that he had signed more than $2 million in checks in his final days as treasurer.
Much of the money went to lawyers who were helping him challenge the recall.
Assistant U.S. Attys. David Vaughn and Cynthia Valenzuela, who prosecuted the case, joined the chorus of South Gate officials who saw the guilty verdicts as symbolizing a turning point for the city.
"We're pleased with the verdicts and think it's the beginning of a new day in South Gate," Vaughn said.
The 2 1/2 -week trial focused on allegations of payoffs in the awarding of the $48-million trash-hauling contract to Klistoff & Sons; a $24-million housing project for senior citizens that was to be built by Southland Cos.; and a $4-million contract to an engineering firm, Psomas, to oversee sewer improvements.
Prosecutors charged that the kickbacks were funneled through middlemen to Robles' relatives, friends and campaign committee.
Michael Klistoff Jr., 42, vice president of the trash-hauling company, said he was told to hire Garrido, operator of a wholesale nursery, as a $350,000-a-year consultant in order to win the 10-year garbage and recycling contract. Klistoff pleaded guilty to bribery before the trial and testified for the prosecution.
Klistoff & Sons agreed in May to pay South Gate $8.5 million.
Garrido, who was convicted of five counts of fraud, received the $437,500 in a series of payments from Klistoff.
He denied any wrongdoing when he testified in his own defense. His attorney, Michael Treman, had no comment after the verdict.
The other payments were routed to Robles' relatives and friends by Edward Espinoza, 50, a New Jersey financial consultant who pleaded guilty to money laundering, fraud and helping to prepare a false tax return.
Prosecutors charged that Robles directed Psomas and Southland Cos. to hire Espinoza as a consultant, paying him more than $2 million. Neither company was charged.
Espinoza testified that he set up a shell corporation, EM Ventures, to receive the money and, at Robles' direction, parceled out $1.4 million to the treasurer's friends and family.
Robles did benefit directly in one instance, according to Espinoza. He said he wrote checks totaling $65,000 to pay for Robles' "platinum" membership in an exclusive organization run by self-help guru Tony Robbins.
The membership entitled Robles to attend motivation seminars that Robbins ran in the South Pacific and Mexico.
Espinoza funneled an additional $165,000 through his shell corporation to purchase a beachside condo in Baja California in the name of Robles' mother.
Espinoza said he made other payments to Robles' political campaign committee and for the printing of political fliers.
Robles did not take the stand during the trial, but his attorney, Ellen Barry, argued that "Albert Robles didn't get cash, didn't get property, didn't get any benefits. All he got was a lot of grief."
Robles' legal woes did not end with his federal conviction Thursday.
A county grand jury indicted him in 2003 for allegedly circulating false campaign fliers during the recall election and using city money to pay for them.
He is scheduled to appear Aug. 23 in Downey Superior Court for a preliminary hearing on those felony charges.
Times staff writer Wendy Lee contributed to this report.
Copyright 2005 Los Angeles Times
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