Ex-South Gate Official’s Trial Gets Underway
A federal prosecutor outlined a pattern of bid-rigging, bribery, money-laundering and nepotism Tuesday as former South Gate Treasurer Albert Robles went on trial on charges of looting more than $12 million from the city’s coffers.
Robles is accused of using his official powers and political influence over a three-year period to steer millions of dollars in city contracts to businessmen in return for kickbacks that were funneled through intermediaries to his family and friends. Prosecutors say Robles personally pocketed $1.2 million in payoffs before he and his supporters were ousted by the voters in a 2003 recall.
In opening remarks, Assistant U.S. Atty. Cynthia Valenzuela said that Robles, 39, carried out his scheme by gaining control of the city’s elected council and administration. Besides dictating the votes of a majority bloc on the council, Robles had the power to hire and fire top city administrators, the prosecutor said.
“This is my kingdom and everything goes through me,” Valenzuela quoted Robles as telling associates.
Among those axed, Valenzuela said, was South Gate’s city attorney. She said Robles replaced him with his mother’s divorce lawyer, whom he often referred to as “my idiot.”
Some $65,000 in alleged kickbacks went to pay for Robles’ “platinum membership” in a motivational-behavior group run by self-help guru Tony Robbins, Valenzuela said.
An $80,000 check went to the mother of Robles’ then-girlfriend, and $165,000 was funneled to buy a beachside condo in Mexico for Robles’ mother, she added.
But defense attorney Ellen Barry countered that her client was innocent. She told jurors that he had no control over how the council voted and did not benefit from any of its actions.
“He is not the omnipotent puppeteer the government has portrayed him as being,” she said.
The prosecution’s case is built around alleged payoffs in the award of a $48-million trash-hauling contract, a $24-million housing project for senior citizens and a $4-million contract to oversee sewer improvements.
According to Valenzuela, Robles rigged the bidding process in 2000 to enable Klistoff & Sons, a small Seal Beach company, to wrest the 10-year, $48-million garbage contract from the city’s longtime hauler, Waste Management.
Michael Klistoff Jr., the firm’s vice president, has since pleaded guilty to bribery charges and is expected to testify against Robles and George Garrido, 53, Robles’ co-defendant. As a condition of winning the contract, the prosecutor said, Robles ordered Klistoff to hire Garrido, owner of a nursery supply business, as a $350,000-a-year consultant. Garrido allegedly received a total of $437,500.
Garrido’s lawyer reserved his right to deliver an opening statement to the jury at a later point.
The prosecution’s first witness Tuesday was Edward T. Espinoza, a New Jersey business consultant, who pleaded guilty earlier this year to laundering kickbacks from city contractors to Robles’ friends and family members.
According to the prosecution, Robles ordered three contractors seeking city business contracts to hire Espinoza as a consultant and pay him a share of the proceeds.
Espinoza admitted getting a total of $2.1 million from the companies and distributing more than $1.2 million of that amount for the benefit of Robles, his family and friends.
The three companies that paid him were the Southland Cos., which won a $24-million senior citizens housing contract; PSOMAS, a consulting firm hired for $4 million to supervise the sewer improvement project; and United Constructors, an engineering firm that was involved in a lawsuit with South Gate. The firms have not been charged with wrongdoing.