Was Rep. Walter R. Tucker III a corrupt politician who betrayed the public trust by soliciting bribes within weeks of election as Compton's mayor, or was he merely the victim of a calculated plot by the FBI to entrap him through undercover agents and operatives?
Simply put, that was the issue presented to federal jurors Tuesday as opposing sides delivered opening statements in Tucker's trial on charges of soliciting and receiving $37,500 in bribes and demanding another $250,000 in kickbacks from two firms doing business with the city in 1991 and 1992.
Tucker, a lawyer and minister who was elected to Congress before completing his term as mayor, also is charged with failure to pay income taxes on his allegedly ill-gotten gains.
Outlining the government's case to a jury of seven women and five men in Los Angeles federal court, Assistant U.S. Atty. Steven G. Madison portrayed Tucker as a greedy and corrupt politician who "broke his promise to the electorate and sold out for money."
Most of the evidence against Tucker is contained in nearly 30 hours of secretly recorded videotapes and audiotapes that document what federal prosecutors say were Tucker's demands for money and the payoffs he received.
Chief witness for the government will be John Macardican, a San Gabriel Valley businessman who wanted to construct a multimillion-dollar waste-to-energy conversion plant in Compton.
Macardican had floated the proposal to the city in the mid-1980s but was turned down, he said, because he balked at paying bribes to city officials.
In 1989, however, the state Legislature mandated that all cities reduce the amount of waste going to landfills. This time, Compton city officials sought out Macardican, asking that he resubmit his proposal.
After conferring with the FBI, Macardican agreed to work as a "cooperating witness," Madison told the jury, thereby setting in motion a three-year investigation into political corruption in Compton.
But the probe did not yield results until the spring, 1991, when Tucker won a special mayoral election to fill a vacancy created by the death of his father, Walter R. Tucker Sr., a dentist who held a variety of civic and political posts in Compton for more than 30 years.
It was young Tucker's first bid for public office.
A few weeks after he was sworn in, Madison said, Tucker approached Macardican at a fund-raiser for then-Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally and said, "We've got to talk."
The pair met for lunch on May 30, 1991, the prosecutor said. Macardican wore a wire. In the secretly recorded conversation, Tucker allegedly told Macardican that to win approval for the waste-conversion project he must start "letting people know that you support them."
When Macardican asked how he could show his support for Tucker, the following taped exchange took place:
Tucker: "Well, I guess I'm not unlike any other politician. I just came off the campaign and I have a debt to retire. What I'm comfortable with is--and again it depends on how you like to do it--it's probably to your and mine and the project's benefit to not have checks . . . you know, from you or what's the name of the company that the project is?"
Macardican: "Compton Energy Systems."
Tucker: "Yeah, CES."
Tucker: "Right, yeah, that's right, that's just a deal breaker, you wouldn't want to do that. But I would be comfortable with a check or checks in some other name. That would be very comfortable with me."
Tucker: "As I say, you know, I have a relatively considerable debt. It's not that bad, but whatever you can muster, something in the area of, maybe 10 grand could help."
During seven secretly recorded meetings over the next 10 months, Tucker received $30,000--all but $1,000 of it in cash--in exchange for his support of the waste-conversion project, the government claims.
In addition, the government claims, Tucker demanded a $250,000 kickback from an undercover FBI agent who was posing as the chief financial backer of the project.
At one of the videotaped meetings, Tucker pocketed $2,000 in cash, stood up, smiled and shook Macardican's hand saying, "We'll be friendly, definitely," according to a prosecution trial memorandum.
And in an oblique reference to Macardican's previous failure to win council support of the project, Tucker reportedly added, "You did a smart thing this time and you approached it properly."
The tapes provide a glimpse at Tucker's political ambitions as he was preparing to move from the mayor's office in Compton to his new offices on Capitol Hill.
On Oct. 23, 1992, with his election to Congress virtually certain, Tucker met Macardican for lunch and talked about infighting on the Compton City Council, according to the prosecutors' memorandum.
"You gotta realize," he is quoted as saying, "I'm going to D.C. but I'm coming back with more power and more money. And I'm gonna be very interested in who's on this council and what makes this city go . . . Just like Merv [Dymally] was--very, very manipulative . . .
"When people come down the pike saying, 'Hey, they're gonna run for this,' then they need to come talk to me. If they want to run, they need to come talk to me because when we get projects like this [the waste-conversion plant] we can't have somebody come in here and say, 'Look, we're gonna run it, no we're not against that, we're not for that, we're going against that.' No, no, no, no, no, then you're not coming on board." A starkly different picture of the 38-year-old Tucker was drawn for the jury by defense lawyer Robert Ramsey Jr.
He described Tucker as a novice in political life who was manipulated into accepting cash from Macardican as part of the government's "entrapment plan."
He said Tucker had initially telephoned Macardican when he was running for mayor to ask for a campaign contribution, but never received a return call.
After his victory, however, an intermediary working for Macardican sought out Tucker and arranged their first luncheon meeting, he told the jury.
Macardican's sole purpose, he said, was "to entrap Mayor Tucker insisting on giving nothing but cash to this political novice."
He said Tucker regarded it not as a bribe but as a political contribution.
Tucker genuinely believed in the waste conversion project and supported it because it would improve conservation and bring jobs to Compton, Ramsey told the jury.
Although Tucker continued to take cash from Macardican, Ramsey said his client did so as Macardican's "adviser" on dealings with the Compton school district. Macardican had proposed building the plant on property owned by the district.
"In Mr. Tucker's mind, there was no conflict of interest because the school board was a separate entity," he declared. He said Tucker never lobbied school board members or tried to use his political influence on them.
Ramsey also challenged prosecution claims that Tucker solicited bribes from Murcole Disposal Inc., which had an exclusive contract to collect residential rubbish in Compton. He is accused of extorting $5,000 from the company in return for voting in favor of a rate increase and $2,500 to approve a five-year extension of its contract.