FBI Abscam Veterans Took Part in Capitol Sting Called ‘Brispec’

Times Staff Writers

One mystery surrounding the FBI’s three-year sting in the state Capitol was finally solved Wednesday.

The undercover operation, FBI sources said, is officially known by the code name of “Brispec.”

The obscure title is an acronym for “bribery special interest,” a phrase that encompasses the FBI’s efforts to sponsor phony special-interest bills and then offer money to legislators to see if any of them could be bribed in return for their legislative support.

So far, five elected officials and four others have been identified as targets of Brispec, including Senate aide John Shahabian, who began helping the FBI last year after he was caught in the sting.

Among those under investigation are Assembly Republican Leader Pat Nolan of Glendale, Sen. Joseph B. Montoya (D-Whittier), Assemblywoman Gwen Moore (D-Los Angeles), Assemblyman Frank Hill (R-Whittier) and state Board of Equalization member Paul Carpenter, a former Democratic senator from Cypress.


Helping to run the Brispec operation, it also was learned Wednesday, were at least three federal agents who participated in Abscam, the FBI sting in which federal agents posed as Arab businessmen offering congressmen cash for legislative favors. Abscam led to the conviction of one U.S. senator, six congressmen and 11 others.

Terry L. Knowles, who was a top official in the New York FBI office that coordinated the Abscam sting, is now the special agent in charge of the bureau’s Sacramento office.

Cash Offer Denied

In a rare public statement on Brispec, Knowles on Wednesday emphatically denied an assertion by Assembly Speaker Willie Brown that undercover agents stuffed $1,000 in cash under the door of an aide to the San Francisco Democrat.

“It absolutely did not happen,” Knowles said. “Whether you say stuffed or left (under the door), it did not happen.”

Brown said two weeks ago that representatives of Gulf Shrimp Fisheries Inc., a dummy company set up by the FBI, slipped the money under the front door of Karen Sonoda, one of his aides. “Can you imagine stuffing 10 $100 bills under someone’s door?” Brown asked at the time.

The Speaker said Sonoda returned the money because it is illegal under state law to accept cash donations of $100 or more. Gulf Shrimp later replaced the cash with a $1,000 cashier’s check to Brown’s campaign, he said.

Knowles would not describe the FBI’s view of what took place, but sources familiar with the investigation indicated that any money delivered by agents as part of the sting would have been “person to person.”

Informed of the FBI’s denial, Susan Jetton, Brown’s press secretary, said the Speaker and Sonoda stood by their versions of events.

FBI officials refused for weeks to divulge their code name for the sting. One federal official indicated that it would be inappropriate to make the name public because the word “bribery” would imply that a crime had been committed when no one has yet been charged.

At least one newspaper began calling it “Shrimpscam,” because the phony companies set up by the FBI were supposed to ship shrimp to the Sacramento area.

Another called it “Capscam,” since much of the sting took place in the Capitol itself. Yet another paper labeled it “Operation Peachfuzz,” because one of the phony companies set up by the FBI was called Peachstate Capital West Ltd.

Brispec now joins the register of FBI sting code names that includes Abscam, which began as an investigation into art thefts and turned into a probe of political corruption; Brilab, an investigation of labor union bribes; Whitewash, a Sacramento investigation of union kickbacks in the construction industry; Greylord, a probe of judicial corruption in Chicago, and Recoup, which involved a stolen car ring.

One federal agent said the bureau uses code names for its operations out of convenience and to disguise the nature of the investigations.

Times staff writer Paul Jacobs contributed to this story. Richard C. Paddock reported from Sacramento and Ronald J. Ostrow from Washington.