Montoya Convicted on 7 Corruption Charges : Justice: State senator is found guilty of trading his vote for money. Colleagues pressure him to resign before he is ousted.


State Sen. Joseph B. Montoya was convicted Friday on seven counts of extortion, racketeering and money-laundering, becoming the first California legislator in 35 years to be found guilty of felony corruption charges while in office.

In a dramatic climax to the two-month trial, the federal court jury rejected Montoya's contentions that he never traded his vote for money and had been "set up" by federal undercover agents.

Montoya--who sat impassively as the verdicts were read--was acquitted on three other charges of extortion, including one involving actor Ed Asner. Montoya's lawyers said they would appeal the guilty verdicts.

The 50-year-old Democrat from Whittier faces up to 20 years in prison on each of the seven counts and could be fined a total of more than $1.75 million. Under the state Constitution, he does not automatically forfeit his seat in the Legislature but could be expelled by a two-thirds vote of the Senate.

Within hours of the verdict, at least five of Montoya's colleagues began calling on the veteran legislator to resign before the Senate moves to oust him.

Montoya, who left the courtroom without comment, was the only legislator indicted in an ongoing federal investigation of political corruption in the state Capitol. He was snared in an FBI sting operation in June, 1988, when he accepted a $3,000 payment from an undercover agent at a breakfast meeting near the Capitol that was secretly videotaped.

The guilty verdicts were a major victory for U.S. Atty. David F. Levi, who has headed the controversial 4-year-old investigation and personally helped prosecute Montoya.

Levi called on other victims of legislative extortion to step forward, and he warned state lawmakers that they will remain under close scrutiny by his office.

"We believe the conviction will be helpful to us as we pursue a public corruption program, one that is always in place and always following leads," Levi said. "One of the most successful things about this case is that it shows that a public official who takes campaign contributions and honorariums and is smart enough to report them can still be convicted."

Members of the seven-woman, five-man jury said the panel looked for ways to acquit Montoya. But in the end, the jurors said, they found that the explanations Montoya gave during four days on the witness stand did not hold up.

"I wish he had been able to defend himself better," said juror Emily Ingram of Benicia. "It wasn't an easy decision to make. We toiled over it, all of us. We lost sleep. We couldn't eat. . . . We really tried to find him innocent."

The Connection

Jurors said they were persuaded not so much by the videotape of Montoya taking money from an undercover FBI agent but by the cumulative evidence that he sought payments in connection with various bills pending in the Legislature.

"It was the connection between the money and the legislation," juror Greg Coumas of Stockton told reporters at a press conference after the verdict was announced.

Specifically, the jury found Montoya guilty of extortion in taking the $3,000 payment from the undercover agent who was pushing legislation to benefit the FBI's dummy shrimp company. In accepting the money, Montoya promised he would "be there" to vote for the bill when it came up on the Senate floor.

The jury also found the senator guilty of attempting to extort payments from Florida insurance executive Douglas O. Ruedlinger, the National Football League Players' Assn., then-sports agent Michael Trope and lobbyists representing foreign medical universities.

One of the more compelling pieces of evidence, jurors said, was a "schedule of fees" Montoya sent to Trope spelling out when he should pay $10,000 in campaign contributions and honorariums.

In addition to finding the senator guilty of extortion, the jury decided that the five acts of extortion constituted a pattern of illegal behavior that violated the federal anti-racketeering statute.

Laundering Count

And the jury found the senator guilty of violating a money-laundering law designed primarily for the prosecution of drug dealers. Montoya broke the law simply by depositing the payment from the undercover agent in his personal bank account, the jury found.

Montoya was acquitted on three counts of extortion alleging that he had solicited payments from Asner, then-president of the Screen Actors Guild, the Allan Co. recycling firm and the California Independent Petroleum Assn.

On those counts, members of the jury said, there was not sufficient evidence that Montoya solicited any payments. In particular, they pointed to the fact that Asner had difficulty remembering details of his encounter with Montoya in 1985.

Wider Distress

Apart from the case against Montoya, several jurors said they were distressed by evidence presented during the trial that other legislators are frequently influenced by money they receive from special-interest groups.

"He's not the only one," said Cindy Tufts, a juror from Carmichael.

Defense attorney Michael Sands expressed disappointment in the verdict and said he will appeal on grounds that several rulings by U.S. District Judge Milton L. Schwartz handicapped Montoya's defense.

In particular, he said, the defense was limited by the judge's ruling that it could not present evidence from other legislators on why they voted for the shrimp legislation pushed by undercover agents.

Citing corruption scandals in Congress that led to the ouster of Speaker Jim Wright and a pending Senate ethics investigation of Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.), Sands also said that the political climate made winning the case all the more difficult.

"Very definitely, a trial at this time is made very difficult by the public perception," Sands told reporters.

Asked what Montoya's reaction was to the verdict, Sands said, "I think he was dismayed somewhat."

Montoya is scheduled to be sentenced on April 26. He will remain free on his own recognizance until then.

After the verdict was announced, other members of the Senate immediately began attempting to distance themselves from Montoya.

"If I were him, I would resign," said fellow Democratic Sen. Art Torres of Los Angeles. "I hope he doesn't put us through the expulsion process."

And Sen. Henry Mello (D-Watsonville) said: "I would have no reservation about voting for expulsion. It's up to him to resign if he wants to. In either case, he is out."

Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) said he hoped to avoid an expulsion vote and will meet with Montoya on Monday to discuss his "status."

Republican Sens. Ed Davis of Los Angeles, William Craven of Oceanside and John Seymour of Anaheim all called on Montoya to resign before his Senate colleagues are forced to take action. "I'm confident they would vote to expel him," Craven said.

More Problems

With his trial over, Montoya will now face a new round of legal problems. Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp's office has indicated that it will go to court to seek civil fines against the senator for the misuse of as much as $100,000 in campaign funds.

And during the trial, prosecutors indicated that the Internal Revenue Service may move against Montoya for not reporting money he diverted from his campaign fund as personal income.

On the witness stand, Montoya admitted diverting more than $45,000 in campaign funds to his personal use, including pocketing reimbursements for travel expenses and paying for such items as travel, clothes and videos.

Montoya also is certain to be challenged in the June primary election by a fellow Democrat, Assemblyman Charles Calderon.

A one-time social worker, Montoya was first elected to public office at age 28 when he was elected to the La Puente City Council in 1968. Four years later, he was elected to the state Assembly.

In 1978, he won election to the Senate in a nasty campaign against fellow Democrat Sen. Alfred H. Song of Monterey Park, who was under investigation by the FBI but was never indicted.

As a legislator, Montoya is viewed by many of his colleagues as a loner and is known for his combative style. Since 1983, he has served as chairman of the Senate Business and Professions Committee, which oversees most of the state's professional groups.

The committee is viewed as a "juice committee" because of the huge amount of campaign contributions given to its members by doctors and other professional groups affected by the panel's actions. Prosecutors alleged that Montoya used his chairmanship to extort money from individuals and groups with business before the committee.

A longtime former aide, Jerry Asher, testified that in the late 1970s Montoya shifted his focus as a legislator away from education and labor issues and became more interested in enriching himself. Montoya wanted to "become a millionaire any way he could," Asher said.

In recent years, Montoya purchased 18 houses worth nearly $2 million. Most of them were rental units and some were managed by Montoya's secretary in his Capitol office.

It will now be up to the Senate to decide whether Montoya should serve out the rest of his term, which expires this year.

Under the state Constitution, the Senate is the sole judge of the members of its house and can expel a member on a two-thirds vote, according to legislative counsel Bion Gregory.

"It is our opinion that if a member of the Legislature is convicted of a felony while in office, the conviction would not result in automatic forfeiture of the office," Gregory said in a Jan. 9 opinion obtained by The Times.

Although a felon who is in prison or on parole is prohibited from running for office, the restriction would not apply to a legislator who already has been elected, Gregory concluded.

"There is no provision of the California Constitution which in general makes conviction of a felony a disqualification for membership in the Legislature," he said.

Only five members of the Legislature have ever been expelled, state records show. Four members of the Senate were expelled in 1905 for accepting bribes of $350 each from an agent for a building and loan company. In 1850, another senator was expelled after he was absent for more than 10 days.

The last legislator convicted of corruption charges was Republican Assemblyman G. Delbert Morris of Los Angeles, who was found guilty of perjury in 1955 in a scandal over the selling of state liquor licenses. He resigned his seat, spent two years in prison and was later pardoned by Gov. Edmund G. (Pat) Brown.

Charles W. Lyon, a one-time Assembly Speaker and Beverly Hills Republican, was found guilty of bribery and conspiracy in 1954 for his role in the same liquor license scandal. His term expired before the Assembly had the chance to consider the question of expulsion. He served two years in prison and was later pardoned by Gov. Goodwin J. Knight.

Also contributing to this story were Times staff writers Carl Ingram, Paul Jacobs and Jerry Gillam.

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