Assemblyman Pat Nolan pleaded guilty in federal district court Friday to racketeering and was immediately sentenced to 33 months in prison. His sentence begins March 28.
Afterward, the onetime GOP Assembly leader was unapologetic and said he had only pleaded guilty because he feared a lengthier prison sentence.
“For six years I have battled (federal prosecutors),” Nolan, of Glendale, said outside the courthouse. “I’m worn out, though I think I would have convinced a jury of my innocence.”
Earlier in the day, a one-sentence resignation letter from Nolan was the first order of business in the Assembly.
Legislators greeted the resignation with a mixture of sympathy and indignation.
Assembly Speaker Willie Brown said: “I assume you plead guilty because you are guilty.”
But the San Francisco Democrat also expressed concern for his onetime political rival: “It’s always sad when something happens to one of my members. . . . This is obviously the worst of the horrors.”
In pleading guilty, Nolan became the first Republican legislator and the first member of the Assembly to be convicted as part of an eight-year federal political corruption investigation.
U.S. Atty. Charles J. Stevens, who signed off on Nolan’s plea-bargain agreement, said the assemblyman’s imprisonment would serve as a warning to others.
“Hopefully, the incarceration of influential legislators such as Nolan will chill to the bones any legislator who would even consider linking votes with money,” he said.
In court before U.S. District Judge Edward J. Garcia, a subdued Nolan declined to make a statement, but outside the courthouse, speaking to a throng of reporters, he complained about the unpredictability of juries and said that if he had been convicted of even one of the six counts included in the grand jury indictment against him, he might have faced an 8-year, 4-month prison term.
“That risk was one I am not willing to take,” he said, his voice filled with emotion. “But my family is too important to me so I’ve accepted the government’s offer, which will limit my time away from them as they grow up.”
Nolan, 43, and his wife, Gail, have three children--all under 6 years old.
“I now have a great appreciation of what Chief Joseph (the defeated 19th-Century Nez Perce leader) felt when he said, ‘I will fight no more.’ ”
Speaker Brown and other legislators acknowledged that the latest guilty plea in the federal corruption investigation tarnishes the Legislature’s image.
Freshman Assemblyman Louis Caldera (D-Los Angeles) put it more bluntly: “It is a black eye for the Legislature.”
Several of Nolan’s Assembly colleagues said they had taken the former Assembly Republican leader at his word when he professed his innocence and vowed to fight his case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
All but one of the Republicans in the Assembly had endorsed his bid for reelection, according to Assemblyman Paul V. Horcher (R-Diamond Bar), who said he was the lone holdout.
“Pat Nolan and I had a different view on ethics,” he said.
Nolan’s attorney, Ephraim Margolin, defended his client as an honorable person with torn allegiances.
He emphasized that Nolan had refused to cooperate with authorities in the prosecution of other public officials in the government’s continuing efforts to root out corruption in the Capitol.
He described Nolan’s legal dilemma as a choice of loyalties, between his family and his Republican allies.
“So in the final account, the man who never took one penny for himself in this affair, who was perhaps too aggressively loyal to his party, decided to take his medicine and get it over with,” Margolin said.
In a sworn statement filed with the court, Nolan described conducting his Assembly office as “a racketeering enterprise” for extorting campaign contributions from those who sought his support on legislation.
He admitted working in collusion with his former legislative aide, Karin Watson, to extort a $10,000 campaign contribution from the Marriott Corp. in 1988 in return for his vote. At issue was a bill that would have helped a rival company, Sunrise Development, build a luxury resort in the city of Indian Wells.
In return for the money, Nolan said, he voted against the so-called desert wars bill, “which was the position Marriott wanted me to take.”
No charges have been filed against Marriott, which had a competing development in nearby Palm Desert.
Nolan also admitted accepting in the same year two $5,000 checks from undercover FBI agents, who were posing as Southern businessmen as part of an elaborate federal sting operation. The agents were seeking Nolan’s support for a bill that would help their bogus company, Peachstate Capital, build a shrimp processing plant near Sacramento. Nolan said he accepted the checks at a meeting in a hotel room across from the Capitol. Watson pleaded guilty to extortion in 1989 and was expected to be a crucial witness against Nolan and two other defendants in a trial still set to begin next month.
Those defendants, Sen. Frank Hill (R-Whittier) and former legislative aide Terry E. Frost, say they will continue to fight the charges.
Both were charged with being part of a conspiracy with Nolan and Watson.
Hill, who was close to Nolan politically when the two served in the Assembly, expressed sympathy for Nolan and his young family, but added: “I don’t understand all the pressures he was under.”
Hill and Frost had asked to be tried separately from Nolan. Now, in effect, their wish has been granted, with Nolan dropped from the case.
“I’m happy to get away from Nolan,” said Frost’s attorney, Christopher H. Wing, who argued that the charges against the Republican legislator would hurt the other defendants. “This is good news for us in the long run. If Hill would get out of there, then we could try this case (against Frost) on the merits and not on the publicity.”
Frost said he was glad for another reason as well. With Nolan as a co-defendant, he said, the trial could have run an additional seven weeks and cost him an extra $70,000 in attorney’s fees.
Nolan was named in six of the eight counts in the grand jury indictment issued in April; Hill in two, and Frost in one.
As a result of the plea bargain, prosecutors dismissed all other charges against Nolan, which originally included conspiracy, extortion and money laundering.
Prosecutors said that if he were convicted on all charges, Nolan could have faced a sentence of more than eight years. Judge Garcia said that the agreed-upon 33-month sentence, on the low end of federal sentencing guidelines, nevertheless assured proper punishment and rehabilitation. He also fined Nolan $10,000 and gave him three years probation.
U.S. Atty. Stevens said that Nolan will not be required to testify for the prosecution against Hill and Frost.
Nolan remains free without bail until reporting to prison.
The guilty plea and resignation close the door on what was once a promising political career.
Nolan, a lawyer and USC graduate, was first elected to the Assembly in 1978--one of a crop of so-called Proposition 13 babies who ran for office while supporting that landmark property tax-cutting initiative.
Glib and ambitious, Nolan formed a rebellious group of insurgent conservatives, who in six years were able to take control of the GOP Assembly caucus--with Nolan named as its leader. Under his leadership, the Republicans came within a handful of seats of taking control of the Assembly, only to fall back again.
He lost that title in 1988 after FBI agents raided the Capitol, searching his offices and those of three other legislators.
On Friday, Nolan’s staff members began cleaning out their offices. His Republican colleagues moved immediately to give his seat on the Assembly Rules Committee to a colleague.
Times staff writers Carl Ingram and Jerry Gillam also contributed to this story.