Former Sen. Paul Carpenter took $20,000 from an undercover agent but "laughed at" the FBI because he knew they were conducting a sting investigation, Carpenter's attorney told jurors Monday as the ex-legislator went to trial on political corruption charges.
In his opening statement, attorney Gerard Hinckley acknowledged that Carpenter was secretly tape-recorded taking credit for aiding in passage of bogus legislation planted by FBI agents. But Hinckley said the veteran lawmaker was simply "being a politician" and never did anything to help win passage of the measure.
"Sen. Carpenter did nothing to help the bill," the attorney said. "Unfortunately, on one of the tapes, you'll hear Sen. Carpenter acting like a politician. He's taking credit where credit's not due."
On the first day of trial, an eight-woman, four-man jury was sworn in and immediately heard opening arguments from both the prosecution and defense and testimony from the first prosecution witness, a lobbyist for an organization of prison guards.
Carpenter, now a member of the State Board of Equalization from the Los Angeles area, is accused of four counts of racketeering, attempted extortion and conspiracy. He is the second elected state official to go to trial in the FBI Capitol sting. The first, former Sen. Joseph B. Montoya, is serving 6 1/2 years in prison after his conviction on similar charges.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Chris Nuechterlein, in his opening argument, portrayed Carpenter as an avaricious public official who used his position to extort campaign contributions from vulnerable citizens.
"This is a case of political corruption, a case where the defendant, Paul Carpenter, sold his office to those willing to pay a price," Nuechterlein said. "The weapon of extortion in this case was not a gun or a knife. It was the power and authority of the defendant's office."
The prosecutor said that in five documented cases, Carpenter solicited campaign donations from lobbyists or private individuals who went to see him about specific legislation. Carpenter refused to talk about legislation with those who had not paid money, he said.
But when an undercover agent posing as an out-of-state businessman offered a campaign donation in exchange for help with a bill, he charged, Carpenter agreed to aid in passage of the legislation.
Carpenter has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence. During a break in the trial after Nuechterlein's argument, the former senator said, "The difference is, we have proof."
Hinckley told jurors that Carpenter knew the payment was part of a sting but accepted the money anyway. When the bill was taken up on the Senate floor, Carpenter did not cast his vote but looked up at where supporters of the bill were sitting in the visitors' gallery, he said.
"He looked up at the FBI guys and laughed at them," Hinckley said, "and the FBI doesn't like to be laughed at."
Senate Majority Leader Barry Keene (D-Benicia) will be called as a defense witness to testify that Carpenter told him the bill was part of an FBI sting operation long before word of the operation became public, the attorney added.