Ex-Mayor of Carson to Plead Guilty to Extortion

Times Staff Writer

Former Carson Mayor Pete Fajardo has agreed to plead guilty to extortion and cooperate in a wide-ranging political corruption probe in that city, prosecutors said Wednesday.

Fajardo, who served as mayor from 1997 to 2001, is one of 10 defendants indicted in the case since November. They include three other present or former elected city officials and several business executives and middlemen.

During meetings with federal authorities, Fajardo, 60, offered to provide information about the current case and other acts of corruption previously unknown to investigators, said Assistant U.S. Atty. John Hueston. Hueston declined to elaborate on the new information, but he said Fajardo is expected to play an important role in the unfolding case.

Fajardo is scheduled to appear in Los Angeles federal court today to enter guilty pleas to one count of extortion and one count of attempted extortion. Under federal sentencing guidelines, he faces a possible sentence of 24 to 27 months in prison.

In his signed plea agreement, Fajardo admitted extorting $50,000 from the owner of El Camino Village, a low-income senior citizen housing project, who sought an $850,000 city grant to lower his mortgage. After receiving the payoff in three installments, Fajardo steered a motion authorizing the grant through a meeting of the City Council on Sept. 21, 1999.

Fajardo also admitted soliciting a $70,000 kickback in 1999 from a representative of LAN Engineering Corp., which wanted a contract to manage the construction of a bridge over the San Diego Freeway. The bribe was not paid.

In a related development, prosecutors filed charges and a plea agreement Wednesday in a case against the daughter of a Los Angeles attorney who was indicted in November on charges of soliciting bribes for Carson City Council members.

The plea agreement with Susan Walecki, 32, of Carlsbad includes a cooperation clause, raising the possibility that she could take the stand to testify against her father, Robert Dennis Pryce Jr.

Pryce, 52, was charged earlier with abusing his position as a U.S. bankruptcy trustee to collect kickbacks.

Serving as the Bankruptcy Court's designee to take control of debtors' assets, Pryce allegedly agreed to use Nelson Shelton and Associates as his real estate agent in disposing of properties. The firm paid Walecki, a schoolteacher, half of its commissions, although she did nothing to earn the money, prosecutors said.

Over time, Walecki received more than $319,000 from the firm, which has not been charged. She passed more than $135,000 of the money to her father, officials said.

Under sentencing guidelines, Walecki could receive probation without jail time or a maximum of 10 months in custody.

The two-year investigation by the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service also has resulted in charges against present Carson Mayor Daryl Sweeney, 45; Councilwoman Raunda Frank, 39; and former Councilman Manuel Ontal, 38.

Frank and Ontal also have signed plea agreements with prosecutors. It was Ontal, a first-term councilman, who triggered the probe by going to the U.S. attorney's office in Santa Ana and volunteering a confession that he and other members had been taking money for votes.

Ontal agreed to wear a concealed tape recorder during meetings with Sweeney in which the mayor allegedly talked about shaking down companies that wanted to do business with the city.

One of those firms was garbage hauler Browning Ferris Industries. Two company executives have been charged with agreeing to pay nearly $600,000 in bribes to council members in return for a 10-year contract worth tens of millions of dollars to haul commercial waste in Carson.

The bribes were allegedly arranged through Pryce, who was Sweeney's personal lawyer.

Sweeney, Frank and Ontal voted to award the contract to Browning Ferris although the firm submitted the high bid, prosecutors said.

BFI later fired the two executives who allegedly agreed to the bribe.

Also charged with attempting to arrange bribes for the accused council members was Garland Hardeman, 46, a former Los Angeles police officer and former Inglewood city councilman. He has agreed to plead guilty, court records show.

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