Declaring "we'll do everything we can" to win passage of a special interest bill, state Sen. Frank Hill took a $2,500 honorarium check from an undercover FBI agent in a secretly recorded video played for the first time Tuesday to jurors in Hill's federal corruption trial.
"Be sure to count it all," admonished the agent posing as a Southern businessman after he handed the check to Hill, a Republican from Whittier. "We will," Hill replied before leaving the room to watch a heavyweight boxing match.
A few seconds earlier, as the agent handed Hill the envelope with the check, the lawmaker said: "Appreciate all your help. Thanks."
Recorded in dimly lighted black and white, the tape provides a peek into the way business is conducted behind the scenes around the Capitol, and the endless hours of meetings, calls and meals that prosecutors contend are devoted to non-controversial legislation when large amounts of money are at stake.
The tape is a central piece of evidence the U.S. attorney's office is using to buttress its case against Hill, who has pleaded not guilty to charges of extortion, conspiracy and money laundering in connection with his acceptance of the honorarium.
The 1988 meeting was set up as part of an elaborate sting designed to ensnare lawmakers and aides in illegal activity. The money exchange occurred at the end of an hourlong chat in a hotel suite across from the Capitol. The meeting was held to discuss the FBI's bogus bill, which was aimed at helping a shrimp processing plant locate near Sacramento.
On the tape, Hill and the agent hardly discuss the legislation, carried by Assemblywoman Gwen Moore (D-Los Angeles), but instead engage in lighthearted banter mostly about sports and hunting. The agent, using the name George Miller, speaks with a thick Southern accent and brags about a variety of pending business deals.
Federal prosecutors played the tape to boost their contention that Hill was illegally accepting money in exchange for his help on legislation. Hill's lawyers point out that it was legal at the time for a lawmaker to receive a speaking fee and that Hill was prepared to make informal remarks about legislation and "did not know the honorarium was supposed to be a bribe."
Karin L. Watson, a former Republican Assembly aide who accompanied Hill to the meeting, testified that when Hill promised to help with the measure, including talking with Republican Senate Leader Ken Maddy, he was alluding to "things he had agreed to do in exchange for the honorarium."
Watson, who drank several glasses of champagne during the meeting, testified that Senate Republicans were supposed to receive $10,000 in exchange for their help with the bill.
Watson pleaded guilty to extortion in exchange for her cooperation with prosecutors and a recommendation that she receive a six-month sentence in a halfway house.
In an excerpt of an audiotape played at the trial, Watson's boss, then-Republican Assmbly Leader Pat Nolan, told Watson the day after the hotel meeting: "Everything appears to be all right on it (the shrimp bill). We discussed it this morning with uh, Maddy, and the governor's staff. . . . Everybody says it's a good idea."
Earlier this year, Nolan pleaded guilty to corruption charges and is serving a 33-month prison sentence.
Maddy carried the measure on the Senate floor but has never been charged with a crime.
In an interview Tuesday, Maddy said he has been questioned by the FBI and attorneys about his role as the Senate sponsor of the bill.
"I have no memory or recollection of talking to anyone about this situation," he said. "Certainly, no money ever came to me or no one in my office was involved in money."
Under questioning by Hill's lawyer, Stephen D. Miller of Los Angeles, Watson said she asked Maddy "if he wanted to be on board" and he said the bill sounded fine.
Miller sought to tarnish Watson's credibility, peppering her with questions about how many drinks of champagne and other alcoholic beverages she had during meetings with FBI undercover agents and informants.
Watson acknowledged that she lied when originally confronted by the FBI in August, 1988, that she had been caught up in the sting. Watson said that she worried that disclosing the truth about raising money in connection with legislation would hurt Republican chances of taking control of the state Assembly and gaining more congressional seats.
"I could see that if I told the truth all that would crumble," Watson said.
The trial resumes Thursday.
Times staff writer Carl Ingram contributed to this report.