Lawyer Says Informant in FBI Sting ‘Never Got Dime’
John Shahabian, a state Senate aide who turned informant after being caught in the FBI’s Capitol sting operation, was an intermediary for campaign contributions in 1986 but “never got a dime personally,” his attorney, Donald H. Heller, told The Times on Thursday.
Heller’s comment is the first indication he has given of the role Shahabian was playing when he was snared by federal investigators in their probe of Capitol corruption.
In another development, The Times learned that Shahabian has been promised immunity from prosecution in exchange for his cooperation.
The veteran legislative consultant, who went undercover to help the FBI almost a year ago, was told that he would not be tried for misconduct if he continues to assist federal authorities in their probe of Capitol corruption, according to a source close to Shahabian and a second source familiar with the federal investigation.
Granting immunity is a common technique in a prosecutor’s arsenal, frequently used to coax a reluctant witness to cooperate.
“The immunity power is perhaps the most powerful tool available to federal prosecutors seeking to obtain the cooperation of corruption witnesses,” says a U.S. Department of Justice manual. The use of immunity “can be the dynamite that blasts a corruption investigation wide open,” according to the document.
According to the two sources, Shahabian has been granted “total immunity,” a step the manual advises “should be used only as a last resort.”
“All he has to do is cooperate honestly and forthrightly and he will not be prosecuted,” one source said.
Shahabian could not be reached for comment Thursday.
His attorney, Heller, declined to comment on the immunity question, but emphatically denied a San Francisco report suggesting that Shahabian had accepted money for helping to pass a special-interest bill.
‘Only Campaign Contributions’
“He never got a dime personally,” Heller said. “It was only campaign contributions.” The attorney refused to name the political candidate who benefited from the money.
But sources familiar with the FBI probe said that in 1986 Shahabian acted as a middleman for payments to the campaign of his boss, Sen. Paul Carpenter. The Los Angeles-area Democrat was running a successful campaign for a seat on the State Board of Equalization at the time.
Carpenter’s campaign committee reported receiving $20,000 in 1986 from Gulf Shrimp Fisheries Inc. of Mobile, Ala., one of at least five bogus companies set up by the FBI as part of the sting.
Part of that money was delivered to Carpenter by Shahabian, the sources said, the rest was given directly to Carpenter by FBI agents posing as businessmen.
The “company” was seeking passage of a bill by Assemblywoman Gwen Moore (D-Los Angeles), which would have changed state banking laws to enable Gulf Shrimp to receive a sizable low-interest loan.
The measure easily won legislative approval, but was vetoed by Gov. George Deukmejian, who had been tipped off about the sting by the FBI.
Carpenter has repeatedly refused to comment on the sting. On Wednesday, he repeated a standard response to questions on the subject: “I don’t want to do or say anything to jeopardize the FBI’s investigation.”
But the former legislator has been identified as one of the targets of the sting operation, which came to light three weeks ago when 30 FBI agents armed with search warrants swept into Capitol offices in a late-night raid.
Carpenter was interviewed by the FBI the morning after the raid, during which the agents searched the offices of Assemblywoman Moore, Assembly Republican Leader Pat Nolan of Glendale, Assemblyman Frank Hill (R-Whittier), Sen. Joseph B. Montoya (D-Whittier) and two aides.
Once Shahabian decided to cooperate with federal investigators, he began tape recording “almost all his contacts” in the Legislature involving Gulf Shrimp and another FBI front company, Peachstate Capital West Ltd., a source familiar with the probe said recently.