A series of grand jury subpoenas served in the Capitol late last week has convinced aides to Assembly Speaker Willie Brown that the powerful San Francisco Democrat is the principal target of a five-year federal political corruption probe, his chief spokesman said Saturday.
“As we suspected from the beginning, he (Brown) has been the target of the investigation all along,” said Michael Reese, Brown’s press secretary. “And there’s nothing to be had. There’s no evidence.”
Sources familiar with the federal probe have long denied that Brown was a likely target for prosecution. But in recent weeks, there have been signs that the FBI is continuing to look at Brown as part of its expanding corruption probe.
“They’d be happy to find something,” one of these sources told a reporter recently.
Reese’s comments--and spirited defense of Brown--came after the latest round of subpoenas, which apparently are directed at Brown’s activities on behalf of one of his private legal clients, a Northern California garbage disposal company.
Late Friday, federal agents served subpoenas to five or more legislative committees and to individual lawmakers who introduced bills between 1985 and 1988 that would have made it easier for garbage companies to overcome local opposition to dump sites. The records sought were of bills by Assembly members Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley), Dominic L. Cortese (D-San Jose), and Chris Chandler (R-Yuba City), and by former Democratic Assemblyman Elihu Harris, who was recently elected mayor of Oakland.
An aide to Wright confirmed that her office was served with a subpoena for the records of an unsuccessful bill sponsored by the Deukmejian Administration, which would have allowed the state Waste Management Board to override local opposition to new dump sites.
On his required annual financial disclosure reports from 1983 through 1988, Brown reported representing subsidiaries of Norcal Solid Waste Systems, a company that hauls trash from a number of Bay Area cities and operates disposal sites.
More than five years ago, Norcal lost a bitter fight over its plan to locate a garbage dump near Vallejo that would have taken trash from a number of cities, including San Francisco, across the bay. Local citizens, incensed at their county supervisors for approving the Norcal site, were able to overturn the decision by referendum.
“That ended it,” said Assemblyman Thomas M. Hannigan (D-Fairfield), whose district includes the proposed dump site. He said he was surprised by a report Thursday in the San Francisco Chronicle that the FBI was interviewing San Francisco officials earlier this year concerning Brown’s role, if any, in the controversy.
“I never had a conversation with Willie Brown about the site or about garbage,” said Hannigan, who is part of the Assembly Democratic leadership and is close to Brown politically. “If he did something, I don’t know about it.”
The company did join other trash haulers and the Deukmejian Administration in a largely unsuccessful effort to give greater authority to the state in choosing sites for garbage dumps.
Norcal officials and the company’s lobbyist, former Democratic Assemblyman John T. Knox, would not comment on the federal investigation.
The serving of federal subpoenas has become such a frequent occurrence in the Capitol that one legislative staff member described the latest round as “just routine.”
They are all part of a political corruption probe that came to light in August, 1988, when federal agents armed with warrants raided the Capitol at the conclusion of an elaborate sting operation, labeled “Brispec,” for “bribery-special interest.”
The investigation already has led to the conviction on political corruption charges of two lawmakers, former Democratic state Sens. Joseph B. Montoya and Paul B. Carpenter.
Almost from the start, Brown said he was the target of the investigation, alleging that federal undercover agents had tried to hand one of his aides $1,000 in $100 bills to buy tickets for a campaign fund-raiser. Acceptance of cash contributions of that size are illegal under California law, and the aide refused the contribution.
Federal sources denied at the time that Brown was a target.
In March, 1989, the San Francisco Bay Guardian ran a story on Brown’s work for Norcal and the Solano County garbage dump fight. The article quoted a 1986 San Francisco city memo saying that if the city of Vallejo could annex the site, state permitting “is almost a certainty, as Willie Brown has promised to push (the project) through the state.” Brown has refused to comment on the memo.
The story may have prompted the renewed interest in Brown, according to his spokesman, Reese, who charged that the FBI and prosecutors “are on a fishing expedition and it’s likely to yield no more than it has in the past. . . . What bothers me it’s so clearly politically motivated. Here we are on the eve of a new Legislature and a new governor and the FBI kicks it off with this.”