Former Santa Ana Councilman Ted R. Moreno, convicted of extortion and money-laundering in a scheme to take control of the City Council, was sentenced to nearly five years in federal prison Wednesday after making a tearful speech in which he said his goal was to keep gays out of the city.
Acknowledging his misdeeds for the first time, Moreno explained that he sought money from an FBI informant so that he could gain a majority on the City Council and stop what he saw as Santa Ana's moral decline.
Moreno said he feared Santa Ana's multimillion-dollar effort to convert portions of its struggling downtown into an arts district would attract gays and lesbians.
"I just know that the gay lifestyle is a sin and offensive to God. . . . It is wrong to take the city in this direction," Moreno said in a courtroom packed with his supporters. "I was just hoping to make Santa Ana a better place to live."
Moreno admitted he "went down the wrong road" and said he now realizes his criminal actions were misguided.
"I have embarrassed my city and I have disappointed thousands who relied on me," he said. Moreno, sobbing and clasping the lectern, begged U.S. District Judge Gary L. Taylor to place him under house arrest so he could be with his wife and four children. But Taylor rejected his requests, saying Moreno remained in a "state of denial" about his crimes.
"Mr. Moreno unfortunately corrupted everything around him. He corrupted the political process . . . he corrupted other people . . . and he also corrupted the justice system," Taylor said.
Prosecutors, who recommended Moreno be given a nine-year sentence, expressed satisfaction with the decision and dismissed the ex-councilman's statements as another effort to avoid taking responsibility for his actions.
"Yet again he attempted to shift blame," Assistant U.S. Atty. John Hueston said. The sentence "sends a strong message. Those who betray the public trust will be punished, and punished severely."
Anti-Gay Remarks Criticized
Moreno's remarks were roundly criticized by antidiscrimination groups as pitiful and misguided.
"It's sad that in his lowest moment he reaches out and seeks to hurt other people solely because of some arbitrary aspect of their being," said Rusty Kennedy, executive director of the county's Human Relations Commission. "He's looking for a boogeyman to blame his own shortcomings on."
Kennedy said Moreno's criticism of the artists district was off the mark. "It's a diverse, vibrant community. That's what makes a city exciting," he said.
Moreno supporters believe the sentence was too harsh. "I know he made a mistake, but he's a good person," resident Consuelo Smith said. "He's not a criminal."
Moreno was convicted in September on 25 extortion, money-laundering and mail fraud counts. During his two-month trial, prosecutors accused him of extorting $31,000 from a gas station owner seeking council approval for a beer and wine permit. Moreno used the money to fund the campaigns of his political allies.
Moreno has maintained that he was entrapped into taking the money from the gas station owner, who was an undercover FBI informant. The jury, however, rejected that argument, swayed in part by a videotape of a jubilant Moreno high-fiving the informant after being handled $2,500.
Moreno's allies--former Councilman Tony Espinoza and failed council candidates Roman Palacios and Hector Olivares--pleaded guilty to lesser charges. Espinoza and Olivares were given probation. Palacios is scheduled to be sentenced today.
During his 20-minute speech, Moreno portrayed himself as a deeply religious man who was tempted in a misguided quest to steer the city away from policies he deemed morally harmful. He said there was "no turning back" after the FBI informant broke his "spirit."
"At that point, the only thing that mattered to me was accomplishing the final objective. And that was to restore Santa Ana's honor by voting out of office those individuals that didn't care about the city's moral appearance and integrity," he said.
An original backer of the arts project, Moreno said he broke with the rest of the council after viewing art exhibits he called "satanic," including one art work depicting a rosary wrapped around a jar of urine.
He said he convinced himself that he was doing "God's work" when he took money from the informant.
"This was the worst decision of my life, because at this moment I convinced myself to stop trusting God for my future and instead I put myself in the driver's seat," he said.
Judge Taylor did not address Moreno's comments on gays. He called Moreno a complex man who was overtaken by his eagerness for power. Moreno's contributions to the community, he said, were outweighed by his criminal actions.
"Mr. Moreno did a lot of harm," Taylor said. "He embarrassed his city. . . . He set back the cause of democracy . . . and dishonored the people that he was supposed to be serving."
Moreno will remain under house arrest until March, when he will begin his prison term. The judge said he would consider recommending that Moreno serve his term at a California federal detention facility.