Sitting across a desk from an undercover FBI agent in an office monitored by hidden video cameras, Compton’s then-Mayor Walter R. Tucker III reaches for a yellow note pad and writes: “50K now, 200K bonus.”
“Is that box, package and string for the whole City Council or just for you?” asks agent Robert Kilbane, a member of the FBI’s Public Corruption Squad.
“Myself . . . that’s just for me,” answers Tucker.
Asked how he would like to be paid, the mayor says, “I’ll just take the cash.”
Kilbane agrees and tells Tucker, “If I want a permit to run naked down the street, I expect I’ll have your vote now.”
That exchange, documented on videotape, was played for a Los Angeles federal court jury Thursday as the government concluded its extortion and tax fraud case against Tucker.
Now serving his second term in Congress, the 38-year-old Tucker is charged with extorting $30,000 in bribes and demanding another $250,000 in kickbacks from Compton Energy Systems, which sought to build a $250-million waste conversion plant in Compton in 1991 and 1992.
He also is accused of extorting another $7,500 from Murcole Disposal, the city’s residential rubbish collector, and failure to pay taxes on payments he received.
Tucker contends he is the victim of illegal entrapment.
During their meeting in a nondescript office in Calabasas on Sept. 12, 1991, Kilbane had passed himself off as “Robert Kelly,” a financier representing Japanese investors interested in backing the waste-to-energy plant.
Tucker was brought to the meeting by Joseph Spraggins, a Compton contractor, who had been recruited by Kilbane to bring him city officials interested in taking bribes.
Spraggins did not know he was really working for the FBI. He has since pleaded guilty to conspiracy and is awaiting sentencing.
On the videotape played for the jury, Spraggins excuses himself after introductions are made and Kilbane and Tucker get down to business alone.
Explaining that he has scheduled an overseas meeting with his investors for the first week of October, Kilbane says, “I’d like to know I have the political skids greased for this thing.”
“I want to be direct,” he adds. “I want to know how much, who, when and where.”
For his part, Tucker expresses a desire to establish a “business relationship” in which he would be loyal to Compton Energy Systems and fend off any opposition.
Tucker then consents to Kilbane’s proposal for “a good-faith deposit upfront with a performance bonus at the end.”
It is at this point in the videotape that Tucker can be seen reaching for the writing pad and jotting down what federal authorities say was his demand for $250,000.
A blowup of the note was shown to the jury Thursday.
“For this kind of money I would expect your enthusiastic endorsement,” says Kilbane, referring to the waste project, which needed City Council approval.
Tucker promises to help, noting he has a “good working relationship” with two other City Council members, Patricia Moore and Omar Bradley. Moore’s support, he says, will be “probably somewhere around 25, but then I don’t know.”
Moore has also been charged with extortion and is awaiting trial in January.
Testifying Thursday as the last prosecution witness, Kilbane, who retired last year, said he tried to make clear throughout his meeting with Tucker that he was proposing an illegal act.
Kilbane said he heard nothing more from Tucker until Nov. 22, 1991, when the mayor called from his car telephone. That conversation was recorded by the FBI.
In what sounds like a cryptic exchange, Tucker asks Kilbane to “send a definitive signal toward the conversation we had previously” and get “the paperwork” to me. At this time, Tucker had not received any of the alleged down payment.
Kilbane testified that the FBI did not authorize payment of any of the $250,000. However, the government did finance $30,000 that Tucker allegedly received from the president of Compton Energy Systems, John Macardican, who served as a “cooperating witness” in the FBI’s three-year investigation of official corruption in Compton.
In the telephone call, Tucker referred twice again to “paperwork” that had not arrived.
Under questioning by Assistant U.S. Atty. Steven Madison, Kilbane said he interpreted Tucker’s comments to mean that the mayor wanted money “upfront” before he did anything to advance the project.
Kilbane agreed to send Tucker the “paperwork” in a sealed envelope through Spraggins, described by Tucker as his “liaison.”
“You understand what I intend to put in there?” asks Kilbane.
“I understand,” replies Tucker. “I understand.”
In his cross-examination, defense attorney Robert Ramsey Jr. suggested that Kilbane was brought into the case because the FBI had failed to establish a quid pro quo between Tucker’s official actions and the money he received from Macardican.
He called the waste-to-energy plant proposal “a sham” that never was intended to materialize.
The defense challenged the government’s contention that Tucker knew he was going to be offered a bribe when he drove from Compton to Calabasas to meet Kilbane.
During an earlier meeting with Spraggins, also secretly videotaped, Kilbane makes clear that he wants to bribe the City Council members even though, he notes, it is a crime in the United States.
The agent asks Spraggins to arrange for him to meet each member “one on one” to discuss the payments, but he emphasizes to Spraggins that he wants every council member to know his intentions before they arrive so no one will be “shocked.”
Testifying earlier this week, Spraggins said: “I related to Mr. Tucker that Mr. Kelly [Agent Kilbane] was willing to put money in his hands,” adding that the mayor expressed no reservations and did not suggest calling the police.
However, under defense cross-examination, Spraggins acknowledged that when first questioned by the FBI on Aug. 19, 1994, he could not remember precisely what he had told Tucker about the forthcoming meeting with Kilbane.
Defense attorney Mark Stephen Smith suggested that Spraggins’ memory improved dramatically a week later after he was advised that he faced charges of conspiracy and income tax fraud.