Tucker Testifies He Heard No Illicit Offer : Trial: Compton congressman takes stand for the first time in federal bribery case.
Testifying for the first time in his own defense, U.S. Rep. Walter R. Tucker III told a federal court jury Thursday he had no idea that anything illegal was being proposed during a luncheon meeting with an undercover FBI informant in 1991.
“I perceived only honorable intentions,” Tucker said about his first meeting with businessman John Macardican, who was wearing a transmitter under his shirt as they talked about a waste-to-energy conversion plant that Macardican wanted to build in Compton.
Tucker, then Compton’s mayor, is accused of extorting $30,000 and soliciting another $250,000 in bribes from Macardican’s firm in exchange for his vote on the proposed waste project.
The government contends that the 38-year-old congressman made his first bribe overture during lunch with Macardican on May 30, 1991, in a swanky private club at the Long Beach World Trade Center. The alleged bribe demands and subsequent payments to Tucker were documented on nearly 30 hours of FBI audiotapes and videotapes, portions of which have been played to the U.S. District Court jury.
Picking out quotations from a transcript of that lunch, defense attorney Robert Ramsey Jr. on Thursday asked Tucker to give his interpretation of what transpired. Tucker said he told Macardican from the outset that he had an “open mind” about his proposal. In 1984, the same proposal was killed by the City Council amid intense community opposition.
The $250-million project called for recycling and burning rubbish from cities throughout the area. Energy from the incinerators was to be sold to Southern California Edison.
Tucker said the 1991 meeting had been arranged by Robert Gavin, Compton’s former planning director who was working as a consultant for Macardican’s Compton Energy Systems.
“What was your understanding of the meeting?” asked Ramsey.
“Mr. Macardican wanted to do what he didn’t do in 1984,” replied Tucker, “to effectively educate and lobby all the members of the city of Compton, basically to lobby and educate them.”
Macardican, who testified for the prosecution at the start of the trial, said his proposal failed in 1984 because he refused to pay a $50,000 bribe to Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally, Tucker’s predecessor in Congress. Dymally has denied the charge.
At one point in the transcript, Macardican tells Tucker, “I made a lot of mistakes, not knowing any better. . . . I won’t make those again.” In his response on the witness stand, Tucker said he had no idea this might have been a reference to bribery.
“The first time I heard about the allegations concerning Congressman Dymally was in this investigation,” he said.
According to the transcript, Macardican tells Tucker, “I’ll do whatever has to be done.” Tucker testified that he “perceived only honorable intent” in that remark.
He said he thought Macardican was simply seeking sound advice from someone who knew Compton.
“He was at his wit’s end,” Tucker said. “He was wanting me to give him some guidance and direction. He didn’t have anyone to tell him where all the bones were buried.”
Prosecutors had objected to the selected use of quotations from the transcript, contending that they would mislead the jury. But Judge Consuelo B. Marshall overruled the objections and allowed the defense to proceed.
However, trial halted for the day before the defense could solicit Tucker’s response to what the government says is the most incriminating part of the transcript.
Toward the lunch’s end, Tucker tells Macardican it is important to do “the groundwork and let people know that you support them.”
When Macardican asks how he can support Tucker, the then-mayor solicits a $10,000 contribution. “I would be comfortable with a check or checks in some other name,” he notes.
And when Macardican proposes paying in cash, Tucker says, “All right,” and assures Macardican, “You got an open ear here.”
The defense contends that Tucker is the victim of illegal entrapment by the FBI and that Macardican was an overzealous undercover operative who manipulated Tucker into accepting cash so it would appear that he was taking a bribe.
In earlier testimony Thursday, Tucker acknowledged that he had been fired as a lawyer in the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office in 1986 for altering an official document and lying to a judge. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor and was placed on probation.
Afterward, he said, he entered private law practice and helped in the political campaign of his father, Walter R. Tucker II, who was elected Compton’s mayor three times. Tucker’s father died in October, 1990, while still in office.
Moving with his wife and two children into his parents’ home, Tucker said, he “assumed the responsibility of paying as many bills as I could, including the mortgage.”
He said other family members who live in the house contributed cash, which he would deposit into his personal account. Presumably, this comment was in response to government testimony that Tucker made thousands of dollars of cash deposits, including bribe money, into his personal account while serving as mayor in 1991 and 1992.
In spring, 1992, Tucker ran in a special election to fill the vacancy created by his father’s death. He won. But, he said, his financial situation worsened. “It was a full-time job with part-time pay,” he said.
The job paid about $24,000.
Tucker told the jury his law practice suffered because of the demands created by his role as mayor. And, he said, people overestimated his authority. Compton, he said, has a weak-mayor, strong-city manager form of government.
In addition to the accusations involving Compton Energy Systems, Tucker is charged with soliciting $7,500 in bribes from Murcole Disposal Inc., the city’s residential rubbish collector, and failure to pay income taxes.
Tucker is expected to be on the stand four more days.