In a case that has become an issue in Sheriff Sherman Block's bid for reelection, a jury Wednesday convicted a former sheriff's administrator and an outside accomplice of accepting and giving bribes as part of a scheme involving millions of dollars in padded contracts for jail food.
As the guilty verdicts were read in Superior Court, the former assistant food service manager of the nation's largest jail system, Fredrick Gaio, slumped in his chair, his head jerking downward toward the court table. His co-conspirator, independent food vendor Rick Lynn Hodgin, stared straight ahead, unblinking.
Both were convicted on three felony counts of bribery involving a public official.
In the scheme, Hodgin paid Gaio--the No. 2 official in the sheriff's $20-million food operation--more than $8,000 in cash, two years' worth of car lease payments, and an all-expense-paid trip to Las Vegas.
In return, Gaio illegally steered lucrative food contracts to Hodgin and companies he represented to provide food for Los Angeles County's jails, which are run by the Sheriff's Department, Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Rosenthal said during the trial.
Gaio, 52, faces a prison term of six years, while Hodgin, 41, faces more than four years in prison. Both Long Beach men were released on bail--$20,000 and $30,000, respectively--pending an Aug. 14 sentencing hearing.
On that date, Judge Curtis B. Rappe will probably sentence Gaio to at least some prison time, due to a state statute aimed at cracking down on public officials who are convicted of taking bribes. If he does not, Rappe must cite unusual and mitigating circumstances in the case.
Asked why she voted for conviction, the jury forewoman said: "All the evidence led to it."
Gaio, however, appeared dumbfounded as he left the courtroom. "I wasn't expecting the [guilty] verdicts," Gaio said. "I did nothing with any motive of criminal intent."
Hodgin had no comment as he left the courtroom.
During the two weeks of trial, Gaio testified that he received the money as a loan, and that he never did anything to steer business to Hodgin, a familiar figure at the jail's purchasing offices.
But the jury believed the Special Investigations Division prosecutor's version: that Gaio took the bribes to feed a voracious gambling habit, and that he used his position and his 17 years of experience in the Sheriff's Department to illegally enrich Hodgin--and himself.
Authorities said Hodgin paid the bribes beginning in 1995, while working for Florida-based Joy Food Service Inc., which had millions of dollars in food contracts with the jail. When Hodgin later became director of sales for Lancaster-based Harvest Farms, that firm suddenly corralled much of the lucrative business.
The two men subverted the purchasing process in several ways. In some cases, Gaio falsely declared that an emergency existed for such items as turkey and cookies, so Hodgin could supply them without competitive bidding--and at higher prices.
Then, once they had the business, vendors sometimes would substitute lesser-quality products for the higher-priced items, a switch jurors were told Gaio sanctioned as part of the deal.
Gaio and Hodgin were indicted in March after a 15-month investigation that authorities said was prompted by a Times story about the Sheriff's Department, including the high cost of some jail food and the relationship between Gaio and Hodgin.
County auditors began investigating, and then brought in the Sheriff's Department when they found evidence of illegal activity.
Authorities documented a pattern of corruption that spanned at least two years. They also confirmed disclosures in The Times about how Gaio's wrongdoing went undetected--despite indications of earlier problems--because of serious lapses in management and oversight of the food purchasing operation.
The controversy was made into a campaign issue by some of Block's opponents in the recent primary. Block, running for a fifth term, was forced into a runoff with Sheriff's Chief Lee Baca.
One candidate, former sheriff's chief of detectives Bill Baker, was especially critical. "If you are content with food service contract kickbacks," Baker said at one League of Women Prosecutors forum, "then vote for Block or Baca, because they are the same."
On Wednesday, Block said the convictions show that he is on top of problems within his mammoth department.
"What is reflective of my management is that we undertook this investigation, which went on for a long period of time, and never gave up on it," Block said.