Former Lynwood Mayor Paul H. Richards II was ordered Monday to serve nearly 16 years behind bars, a sentence that federal prosecutors described as one of the longest in any U.S. public corruption case.
Richards, a 50-year-old former attorney, was convicted in November of steering city contracts to a front corporation he secretly owned. The scheme could have netted Richards more than $6 million, although he managed to siphon off only $500,000 before authorities interrupted, they said.
The case was the latest in a series of state and federal investigations targeting public corruption in cities in southeast Los Angeles County, including South Gate, Compton and Carson. The investigations have resulted in 17 convictions.
Richards was ousted from the Lynwood City Council in a 2003 recall election after 17 years in office amid allegations of corruption and cronyism.
Richards' attorney, Ed Robinson, urged the judge Monday to reduce the sentence, calling it "borderline cruel and unusual punishment." Richards was convicted on 35 counts of extortion, fraud, money laundering and making false statements to investigators. Federal sentencing guidelines called for his penalty to be calculated based on his potential, rather, than actual financial gain.
Violent criminals spend less time in prison for their crimes, Robinson argued.
But prosecutors said tough punishment sends a strong message to elected officeholders.
"It is a day for reflection for public officials in Los Angeles, in Sacramento, and in Washington, D.C., that the people have zero tolerance for public corruption," Assistant U.S. Atty. Daniel Shallman said after the hearing.
Robinson said he plans to appeal.
Richards was also ordered to pay the city of Lynwood more than $787,000 in restitution.
His sister, Paula Cameo Harris, 57, of Altadena, was sentenced to six years in prison. She served as president of Allied Government Services, the front company that Richards set up to do business with the city.
Longtime friend Bevan A. Thomas, 57, of Anaheim was ordered to serve nearly 10 years in prison. He was convicted of bribing Richards in return for city contracts.
U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner noted during the sentencing hearing that all three defendants, who mounted a vigorous defense at trial, "do not seem to accept responsibility for the conduct that has occurred in this case."
In court, Richards told the judge that he was surprised by his conviction, believing his testimony would persuade jurors of his innocence. "It just didn't unfold the way I thought it would."
"I don't know where I went wrong in this process but I've always tried," he said, noting that he always had worked two jobs. "I've never tried to get anything for free."
At the trial, Richards testified that he had not disclosed his links to Allied Government Services because he believed it wasn't legally required, and because doing so would politicize the proposed contracts since "some people were disposed to attack anything I was involved in."
Richards' lawyer portrayed the convicted former mayor as one of the best things to ever happen to Lynwood, a blue-collar community of 70,000. He said the defense was unfairly barred from putting on evidence about the city's political reality.
Among Richards' accomplishments, according to his lawyer, were some of the same acts that led to his conviction. For example, Robinson cited the $4.8-million city contract that Richards' front company negotiated with a firm to erect dozens of billboards in the city. Richards' company would have received a $960,000 kickback.
Last year, a jury found former South Gate Mayor Albert Robles guilty of soliciting more than $1.8 million in bribes from municipal contracts bidders. Robles has not been sentenced.
In Carson, two former mayors and one City Council member were handed prison terms ranging from home detention to nearly six years in prison for a series of bribery schemes that cost the city more than $12 million. And in Compton, former Mayor Omar Bradley was sentenced to three years in prison for misappropriating public funds.