Judge Rejects Plea-Bargain Offer in Payola Case, Cites Possible Coercion

Times Staff Writer

A federal judge refused Wednesday to accept a proposed plea agreement with independent record promoter Ralph Tashjian and his wife, finding that Valerie Tashjian may have been “coerced” into pleading guilty to save her husband from additional criminal charges.

“I can make no finding the plea is warranted or that it is not coerced,” U.S. District Judge Pamela Ann Rymer said of the package agreement, under which the couple had been scheduled to enter guilty pleas last month.

Tashjian, 41, had intended to plead guilty to a misdemeanor count of making undisclosed payments to a radio station to add his clients’ records to their play lists and to two felony counts of filing false tax returns and obstruction of justice.

Under the agreement, Valerie Tashjian, who acted as a bookkeeper for her husband’s promotion business, would have pleaded guilty to a charge of aiding in the preparation of a false tax return.


Widening Probe

Her plea was halted abruptly last month when she tearfully admitted that she was actually pleading guilty because she had been told that her husband might face additional charges in a widening nationwide payola investigation if she did not.

Lawyers for the Tashjians and the Justice Department’s Organized Crime Strike Force differed on whether it was implicit throughout the plea negotiations that the government would not accept Tashjian’s guilty plea without that of his wife.

Strike force chief John Newcomer said the government made no intentional misrepresentations when it failed to mention the reciprocal nature of the agreements in the package presented to the court.

But Tashjian’s lawyer, Anthony P. Brooklier, said in court papers that government prosecutors specifically declined to include the language in the plea agreement.

In their own papers, government prosecutors said they made it clear from the beginning that it would be impossible to allow Ralph Tashjian to plead guilty while his wife proceeded to trial. Tashjian could then testify in an attempt to free his wife of blame, without himself facing additional criminal charges, they said.

Rymer scheduled Valerie Tashjian for trial on May 23 but did not schedule a trial date for her husband.