Rep. Tucker Found Guilty of Bribery and Tax Evasion : Crime: Former Compton mayor is convicted of accepting $30,000 from an FBI informant in videotaped transactions. He faces fines and several years in prison.
Rep. Walter R. Tucker III was convicted by a federal jury Friday of extorting $30,000 in bribes and cheating on his income tax while serving as Compton’s mayor in 1991-92.
After deliberating nearly nine days, the jury found the Democratic lawmaker guilty on seven counts of violating the federal Hobbs Act, which bars public officials from taking money in exchange for their votes.
Tucker, a two-term congressman, also was convicted of failing to pay income taxes on the bribe payments and other money he received during those years.
The jury deadlocked on three other extortion counts and U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall dismissed them in the interest of justice.
A lawyer and ordained minister, the 38-year-old Tucker embraced and comforted his sobbing wife, Robin, after the jury was dismissed. Other family members also wept.
But Tucker, clutching a black leather-bound Bible, maintained his composure, telling reporters, “I don’t know why God has allowed this to happen, but I trust him.”
He declined to say whether he would resign from Congress and suggested that he might start a prison ministry if he has to serve time behind bars. Sentencing was scheduled for March 18.
Tucker also said he harbored no hard feelings toward the jurors who convicted him, but his wife could not restrain her bitterness. “They’re going to have to live with this the rest of their lives,” she said tearfully.
U.S. Atty. Nora M. Manella hailed the jury’s verdict.
“These guilty verdicts put to rest any claim that Mr. Tucker was the victim of government entrapment,” she said. “What the evidence showed, and what the jury found, was a politician willing to sell his vote and sell out his community.”
The most damaging evidence against Tucker consisted of nearly 30 hours of secretly recorded FBI video and audiotapes that documented seven payoffs from businessman-turned-FBI informant John Macardican.
Macardican, who made $30,000 in payments to Tucker with money supplied by the FBI, was seeking permission to build a $250-million waste-to-energy conversion plant in Compton.
In the mid-1980s, he pitched a similar proposal to the City Council but said he was turned down because he balked at paying a bribe.
In 1989, however, the California Legislature mandated that all cities reduce the amount of waste going to landfills. This time, Compton officials sought out Macardican, asking that he reactivate his proposal.
He did so, but also secretly agreed to work for the FBI as a “cooperating witness,” wearing a hidden recorder and transmitter during what was to become a three-year investigation into political corruption in Compton.
Excerpts from the FBI tapes were played for the jury during Tucker’s three-month trial.
In one scene, Macardican counted out $2,000 in cash and gave it to Tucker, saying, “That plus the eight [thousand] we agreed on should secure your vote.” As he pocketed the money, Tucker smiled and said, “We’ll be friendly, definitely.”
The prosecution introduced evidence that Tucker used his powers as mayor in exchange for the money. Among the items cited were a letter signed by Tucker on mayoral stationery that was sent to the president of the Compton school board touting Macardican’s project, and Tucker’s tie-breaking vote on the redevelopment commission giving Macardican exclusive negotiating rights with the city.
Taking the stand in his own defense, Tucker denied any wrongdoing and protested that he was the victim of entrapment by an overzealous government informant. He said that $20,000 he received was for advice he gave Macardican as a consultant on the waste-to-energy project and that $10,000 was a personal, interest-free loan.
He said he and Macardican reached an understanding about the money during conversations that were not recorded by the FBI or were recorded and withheld from the defense, a claim hotly denied by the prosecution.
Assistant U.S. attorneys Steven G. Madison and John M. Potter scoffed at Tucker’s explanation and challenged him to cite any reference on the tapes or elsewhere to a consulting agreement or a loan.
In his closing argument to the jury, Madison said the case against Tucker boiled down to one issue:
“Is he the corrupt politician he appears to be, selling his vote for cash and victimizing his constituency, or is he, as he claims, the victim of some massive government conspiracy, some phenomenal series of plots, all aimed at attacking Walter Tucker?”
As the jurors left the federal courthouse Friday afternoon, a few stopped to comment on the trial.
“It wasn’t overwhelming,” juror Jon Espinosa said of the prosecution’s case, but it was strong enough for the panel to reach nine guilty verdicts without animosity.
Espinosa and another juror said in interviews that they did not find Tucker to be a convincing witness.
“He certainly presented a completely different picture being at the table [where he was surreptitiously videotaped by authorities] and on the stand,” Espinosa said.
Another juror, who asked not to be identified, made a similar comment in a separate interview.
“He was a good public speaker,” she said, “but as far as the content. . . .”
Of all the evidence presented, she said, “the most compelling was the videotapes.”
The jurors said they felt a heavy weight of responsibility in deciding Tucker’s fate.
“Basically,” said Espinosa, “we worked to make sure we wouldn’t regret our decision a week or a month later.”
Although Tucker faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine on each of the seven extortion counts, he could serve as little as a “few years” of jail time under federal sentencing guidelines, Manella said.
Each of the two counts of false income tax returns carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison and a $100,000 fine.
Manella said the low end of the sentencing range would “probably be somewhere between months in the mid-30s and months in the mid-40s.”
Despite his conviction, Tucker is not obliged to give up his 37th District congressional seat. The House code of conduct calls for a convicted member to refrain from taking part in committee business and from voting on the House floor, but he may keep his congressional seat and salary and may also seek reelection. Tucker’s term expires in January 1997.
But he will face immediate disciplinary action by the state bar. Once notified of his conviction, the bar will issue an interim suspension of his license to practice law.
The investigation that led to Tucker’s indictment began in 1990, a year before he was first elected to public office, a point prosecutors stressed to counter defense claims that Tucker was the victim of a government plot.
Although Tucker, who is black, told a pretrial rally that he was the victim of government racism, the defense did not repeat those claims during the nine-week trial before a racially mixed jury.
Indeed, defense attorney Robert Ramsey Jr., made only one fleeting reference to Tucker’s race in his closing argument.
By contrast, former Compton Councilwoman Patricia Moore, who was indicted in the same FBI investigation and is awaiting trial on 23 extortion counts, has made allegations of racial bias the bulwark of her defense.
She has filed a motion with Judge Marshall to dismiss the case against her, alleging that there is an FBI plot to oust black leaders nationwide. A hearing is set for this month.
According to the government, Tucker made his first bribe solicitation on May 30, 1991, weeks after being sworn in as mayor, a part-time post paying $24,000 a year.
Tucker won a special election that year to fill the vacancy created by the death of his father, Walter R. Tucker Jr., a dentist who held a variety of civic and political posts in Compton over more than 30 years.
It was the younger Tucker’s first bid for public office, and, at age 33, he became the city’s youngest elected mayor.
A few weeks later, federal investigators said, Tucker approached Macardican at a fund-raiser for then-U.S. Rep. Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton) and said, “We’ve got to talk.”
The pair met for lunch at a private eating club in Long Beach, ostensibly to discuss the businessman’s proposed waste regeneration plant. Macardican wore a concealed tape recorder.
Although the conversation was taped, the prosecution and defense clashed sharply over what transpired.
Ramsey told jurors that a careful reading of the transcript showed that Macardican finessed the conversation from innocent talk about a $10,000 campaign contribution to a discussion of making payments to Tucker in cash so they could not be traced.
“Mr. Tucker never meant anything sinister or illegal,” Ramsey said. “He meant campaign contributions. What was in Mr. Macardican’s mind he didn’t know. How was Mr. Tucker supposed to know he was talking about bribery? This was the first time they had ever met.”
But prosecutor Potter, pointing to the same audiotape, said it was Tucker who first raised the subject of illegal payments, advising Macardican on how to launder campaign contributions to City Council candidates. And when Macardican proposed paying him in cash, Tucker said, “All right,” and assured him, “You’ve got an open ear here,” the prosecutor noted.
Although Tucker offered no independent corroboration of a consulting agreement, he testified that when Macardican started talking about giving him cash, he assumed that the businessman was then engaging him as an advisor on lobbying the Compton school board. Macardican had talked during the lunch about buying school district land for his project.
But after their meeting, Tucker said, he worried about a possible misunderstanding and “clarified” his relationship with Macardican during a chance meeting in the parking lot outside the businessman’s Compton office two weeks later.
Tucker said he made it clear to Macardican that he would accept his cash payments but insisted, “I’m gonna earn it” as a consultant.
The prosecution put Macardican and an FBI agent on the stand to testify that the meeting never occurred. According to the agent, Macardican wore a concealed recorder during every encounter he had with Tucker and, he said, Macardican never went to Compton without being accompanied by an FBI agent.
Tucker was also charged with extorting $7,500 in bribes from Murcole Disposal Inc., the city’s residential rubbish collector. There were no surreptitious videotapes to document this part of the government’s case, and the alleged extortion demands were said to have been made through an intermediary, now dead.
The jury deadlocked on two extortion counts involving the payments from Murcole and on a third extortion count involving a videotaped meeting between Tucker and undercover FBI agent Robert Kilbane, who was posing as Macardican’s financier. At that meeting, Kilbane agreed to pay Tucker $250,000 in cash, adding, “If I want a permit to run naked down the street, I expect I’ll have your vote now.”
However, the jury was able to reach unanimous agreement on two tax evasion counts against Tucker, who was accused of failing to report $58,495 in income for 1991 and 1992. Of that amount, $30,000 constituted bribes from Macardican. All but $1,000 was in cash.
IRS special agent Kent Greenberg testified during the trial that Tucker deposited $74,000 in cash in his personal account at Capitol Bank in Compton during 1991 and 1992.
He said the IRS could not account for the source of an additional $45,000 in cash deposits, but the defense said it constituted contributions to household expenses by Tucker family members.
There was testimony from Tucker and other defense witnesses that the mayor’s job left him financially strapped because he had little time left to devote to his law practice. “It was a full-time job with part-time pay,” Tucker testified.
Tucker’s past also came under attack during the trial. In 1986, he was dismissed from his job as a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney for altering a record and lying about it to a judge in a case he was prosecuting. He pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of altering a public record and was placed on three years’ probation.
When questioned about his conviction, Tucker characterized it as a mistake that he regretted.
But Madison pressed the defendant about his characterization, declaring that it was not a mistake but a willful and intentional crime.
In Compton, where the Tucker family has been politically prominent for generations, the convictions prompted surprise and anger.
The Rev. William R. Johnson Jr., pastor of Curry Temple CME in Compton, questioned whether the verdict was racially motivated, noting that only one juror was black.
“The first thing we do is to look at the race issue,” Johnson said. “I just wonder if the white community is saying, ‘OK, O.J. Simpson got away but you [Tucker] won’t get away.’ ”
Times staff writers Edward J. Boyer and John Hurst contributed to this story.