The head of a federally funded economic development agency here pleaded guilty to a bribery charge in 1991 for soliciting and accepting thousands of dollars from three men, including Alfred R. Villalobos, who is now Los Angeles deputy mayor for economic development.
Villalobos, the only one of the group not to be charged with a crime, was performing consulting work for the agency at the time, according to documents on file in U.S. District Court here.
The documents state that Villalobos made $21,000 in loans to Domingo Bueno, president of the the Mexican American Unity Council, at the same time Bueno was approving thousands of dollars in payments to Villalobos.
Villalobos said this week that he had done nothing wrong. He said he made the loans to Bueno out of friendship and had tried repeatedly but unsuccessfully to get Bueno to repay them with interest, as he had promised in writing.
"I was a victim of this guy," Villalobos said. "I certainly was not a collaborator. . . . If they felt that I had done something wrong, I do not believe they would have hesitated to indict me and prosecute me."
Villalobos said that at the time he made the loans, his work for the Unity Council--which had brought him about $100,000 over three or four years--was complete, or nearly so.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Pamela A. Mathy said Justice Department rules bar her from commenting on why Villalobos was not charged. Federal prosecutors listed him as a prospective witness if the case against Bueno had gone to trial.
To prosecute Villalobos under federal bribery laws, the government would have had to prove that Villalobos had a corrupt intent when he provided the money to Bueno.
Villalobos' attorney, Brian O'Neill, said Friday that federal agents told him Villalobos was never a target of the investigation. But Bueno's lawyer, Ronald P. Guyer, said an FBI agent told him otherwise. "They wanted (Bueno) to put the finger on Villalobos, no question about it," Guyer said.
Court documents filed by prosecutors mention only one project Villalobos worked on for the Unity Council: an effort to resolve a dispute with the U.S. Economic Development Administration, an arm of the Commerce Department. The Unity Council, a nonprofit corporation, provides social services in the west San Antonio barrio and runs a commercial subsidiary.
In pleading guilty, Bueno acknowledged that he took the money from Villalobos, as well as from two other Unity Council consultants, while intending to be influenced in conducting the affairs of the agency.
Villalobos was chosen by Mayor Richard Riordan in July as the top aide in his efforts to revive Los Angeles' sagging economy by making the city more business-friendly.
Subsequently, The Times reported that Villalobos, 49, had a checkered career as a financial consultant, marked by a personal bankruptcy in 1982 in which he wrote off about $350,000 in debts, large gambling losses and complaints from people who say he took advantage of them financially.
After an article last month describing some episodes from Villalobos' past--including successful lawsuits brought against him by a dozen creditors--Riordan said through a spokeswoman that some of the lawsuits and Villalobos' bankruptcy had come as a surprise.
Nonetheless, the mayor said he would stand behind Villalobos, observing that his aide's business reversals and triumphs "make him the kind of person who can speak with other entrepreneurs and corporate leaders about their business problems and successes."
This week, Riordan issued a brief statement through an aide saying that he had just learned of the San Antonio case after an inquiry by The Times and that "it would be presumptuous of me to comment before I thoroughly review all the facts."
According to documents filed in the case by federal prosecutors, Bueno solicited $21,000 from Villalobos "purportedly for a real estate investment Bueno was making." Guyer, Bueno's lawyer, confirmed in an interview that the money was never repaid.
The grand jury indictment says Villalobos gave Bueno the money in three installments during 1986 and 1987. During the same period, "Villalobos was paid over $5,000"--the threshold amount in the bribery statute--"in fees for consulting services," the prosecutors' court filing said.
Unity Council officials said the agency's records were a shambles so they were unable to provide details about Villalobos' consulting work. Villalobos said he typically was paid $12,000 to $15,000 on each project.
The deputy mayor said he obtained the jobs through an informal bidding process. During Bueno's tenure, either Bueno or his aides would telephone and ask for price quotes. After early or mid-1987, Villalobos said, "I kept making my quotes and they didn't hire me. They hired other people." He said that showed Bueno did not do him any business favors in return for the loans.
Reading from what he said was an account of the case in Bueno's pre-sentencing report, Guyer said Bueno initially had asked Villalobos to loan him $50,000, then reduced his request to $30,000 before settling for $21,000.
Villalobos said Bueno indeed had invited him to put up $50,000--as a co-investor in a 1986 real estate deal. He initially agreed, then changed his mind, he said.
Bueno "felt I had sort of left him in the lurch," Villalobos said. "And so he asked me if I would loan him some money instead, and I said, 'Sure, but I want to get paid back.' Over a period of time--I don't remember the amount of time--I loaned him the $21,000. I got notes--interest-bearing notes--signed by him. I tried to collect the money. He kept saying he didn't have it. Subsequently, he filed bankruptcy."
Villalobos made his first loan of $8,000 to Bueno less than two months after petitioning the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Los Angeles to reopen his own personal bankruptcy case so that he could write off another $9,400 in old debts to a bank and a credit service, according to court records.
The other two consultants named in the indictment pleaded guilty to lesser crimes than bribery in plea bargains that required them to cooperate with the government. Both men were placed on probation. Villalobos' lawyer, O'Neill, said he believes that prosecutors used the loans from Villalobos only to pad the indictment and increase pressure on Bueno.
The pre-sentencing report on Bueno--a confidential document prepared by federal probation officers--imputed a motive to at least some of the consultants who paid money to Bueno, Guyer said. Reading from the report, Guyer said "many of the payments" were made so that the consultants' contracts with the Unity Council would be continued.
But the report did not specify which consultants were deemed to have been so motivated.
Bueno was sentenced early last year to 18 months in prison and is in a San Antonio halfway house. He did not respond to a letter left for him requesting an interview.
San Antonio Case
In 1991, Domingo Bueno, head of the federally-funded Mexican American Unity Council in San Antonio, pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges for soliciting and accepting money from three men--including Alfred R. Villalobos, now Los Angeles' deputy mayor for economic development. Villalobos, who worked as a consultant for the nonprofit agency at the time, was not charged. Below is an excerpt from a document prepared by federal prosecutors outlining the charges they intended to prove. In pleading guilty, Bueno admitted the allegations were true.