Nathanson Gets Nearly 5 Years for Extortion : Crime: Former state coastal commissioner is sentenced for soliciting bribes from people seeking construction permits. Judge gives him six months less than the maximum term.
Former California Coastal Commissioner Mark L. Nathanson was sentenced to four years and nine months in federal prison Tuesday--six months less than the maximum--for using his appointed state office for personal gain.
A contrite Nathanson took responsibility for his conduct but asked U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton for the lowest possible sentence under federal sentencing guidelines, saying that his life was now in ruins, having lost his wife, family and business investments.
In June, the 54-year-old Beverly Hills real estate broker admitted soliciting almost $1 million in bribes from those seeking building permits from the commission, including Hollywood figures such as actor Sylvester Stallone, producers Irwin Winkler and Blake Edwards, and agent-producer Sandy Gallin.
“I have no excuses, your honor,” Nathanson told the judge. “I engaged in improper behavior. I did not adhere to the high standards of the office to which I was appointed.”
Speaking softly but standing erect, the defendant, who was once dubbed “the coastal commissioner to the stars,” described spending a nervous, sleepless night preparing his final appeal for leniency.
He said that the investigation of his misconduct had ended his marriage and cost him his family and livelihood. “I have lost everything I have worked for (more than) 35 years,” he said. “I apologize to the people of California. I am fully repentant and ashamed.”
But federal prosecutors suggested that Nathanson has not been as cooperative as they hoped since he pleaded guilty in June to two counts of racketeering and tax fraud.
And they asked Karlton to impose the maximum sentence permitted under Nathanson’s plea-bargain agreement--five years, three months rather than the four years, three months that Nathanson was seeking.
Acting U.S. Atty. Robert M. Twiss told reporters that thus far prosecutors have learned nothing from Nathanson “that would justify anything but the top of the guidelines. . . . I’m sure he has the ability to recall actions involving persons other than himself.”
But one of Nathanson’s attorneys, Stephen L. Braga, said Nathanson is cooperating, and as is often the case in plea bargains, his client offered help in investigating specific individuals.
Karlton chose a term halfway between the two extremes and agreed to delay the start of the prison term until Nov. 10, so that Nathanson could undergo extensive treatment for skin cancer. With credit for time served, the ex-official could be eligible for release in a little more than four years.
The judge agreed to recommend that Nathanson be assigned to the minimum-security prison camp at Pleasanton, east of Oakland, and be furloughed twice a year for medical treatment for severe psoriasis, a debilitating skin condition.
Twiss emphasized that Nathanson could have his sentence reduced even more if his cooperation proves helpful in prosecuting others in the ongoing probe of political corruption in state government. The prosecutor said the investigation remained “one of the highest priorities of this office.”
Nathanson’s sentencing came on the fifth anniversary of the FBI’s raid of the Capitol--the first public act in a federal probe that was launched two years before.
The investigation, begun as an elaborate sting operation, has resulted in the conviction or indictment of 14 individuals, including five legislators.
Asked about the impact of the investigation on the Legislature, Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) told reporters, “I think they (federal investigators) have spent lots and lots of money. You the public will have to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of that expense.”
Brown, who appointed Nathanson to the Coastal Commission in 1986, has not been implicated in any wrongdoing. But on Tuesday, the Speaker said he felt that he might have been an early target of the probe, an assertion he has made before.
“I think the feds were after a person of African-American descent,” he said. “I think they were more likely looking for someone like me. But I think everyone is after me.”
In the courtroom, the debate over the appropriate sentence revolved around just how egregious Nathanson’s offense had been.
Among his offenses, Nathanson admitted extorting cash from a number of individuals, some of whom complied while others refused.
Stallone, star of the “Rocky” pictures, needed Coastal Commission approval to add a pool to his Malibu home in 1988. Nathanson asked for $25,000 but Stallone refused. Also in 1988, producer-director Edwards turned down Nathanson’s request for $200,000 to approve improvements on his home.
Others, however, did pay for Nathanson’s help in obtaining permits. Among them were “Rocky” producer Winkler, who paid $25,000, and Gallin, who paid $59,000 in 1988 and 1990 for improvements to homes in Malibu and Point Dume.
In a lengthy court statement earlier this year, the former coastal commissioner said he and ex-Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys) had demanded and received $250,000 from San Diego hotel developer Jack Naiman, who was seeking to block the construction of a rival hotel project.
Robbins, who pleaded guilty to racketeering charges in 1991, was initially sentenced to five years in prison. By cooperating with federal authorities in connection with probes of Nathanson and others, Robbins was able to get his sentence cut to two years.
Karlton said he agreed with prosecutors that Nathanson’s behavior had been “blatant,” echoing a sentencing memorandum from prosecutors.
Karlton also reaffirmed that Nathanson must pay a fine of $84,000 and $116,000 in restitution to Naiman.
Times staff writer Jerry Gillam also contributed to this story.