Former South Gate Treasurer Albert Robles was sentenced Tuesday to 10 years in federal prison for plundering more than $20 million from the small, working-class city.
A federal judge handed down the sentence after Robles said in an impassioned speech that he had acted “immorally” during his years as leader of South Gate, but never broke the law.
“There are different levels of hoodwinking, but I didn’t think hoodwinking was a crime,” Robles said. “During that period I decided not to be a very good man every day. But I did not decide to be a criminal.”
At times teary-eyed, Robles, 41, said he managed to make people think he was an “all powerful being in the city,” but that he did not really wield such power.
But Judge Stephen V. Wilson said he found the man who once boasted of being “the King of South Gate” to be a “puppet master” who controlled a corrupt enterprise that preyed on the city’s coffers and residents.
Wilson seemed incredulous at Robles’ defense. When Robles’ attorney argued that what the ex-treasurer did was business as usual in California politics, the judge responded that “what you have just said is among the most absurd things I have ever heard.”
Three other Robles allies -- former trash hauler Michael Klistoff, nursery owner George Garrido and New Jersey financial consultant Edward Espinoza -- were also sentenced for their roles in the fraudulent schemes.
The sentencing caps a six-year saga that came to symbolize problems with public malfeasance and backroom deals in the small towns of Southeast L.A. County. Earlier this year, Paul Richards, the former mayor of Lynwood, next door to South Gate, was sentenced to 16 years in federal prison for public corruption.
Prosecutors said Tuesday that Robles’ sentence sent a message.
“He turned South Gate into a pay-to-play city,” said federal prosecutor David Vaughn. “I think this is the beginning of a new day in South Gate.”
A federal grand jury in 2004 indicted Robles on 39 counts of money laundering, bribery, wire fraud and public corruption, alleging that he used his elected office and political influence to funnel money from city projects to family and friends between 1998 and 2003.
According to the federal indictment, Robles demanded that firms seeking to work with the city hire an associate as a consultant. This person allegedly funneled money back to the treasurer and his associates. Prosecutors said Robles, his family members and friends spent the money on such things as a beach condo in Baja California in his mother’s name and a “platinum membership” in a motivational behavior group run by self-help guru Tony Robbins. The group later returned that money to South Gate.
Robles was convicted last year.
During Robles’ reign, one rival councilman was shot, Robles was accused of threatening to kill political opponents and the city neared bankruptcy. Robles and three council allies were booted out of office in a 2003 recall election.
“I am ecstatic,” said Virginia Johnson, a 32-year resident of South Gate who sat through most of Robles’ trial and hearings. “I just can’t stand Albert. He took something from me.”
“And from the city,” added Jean Heinl, a resident of South Gate since 1958.
Henry Gonzalez, 71, a longtime foe of Robles, hailed the sentence as long in coming. In 1999, Gonzalez was shot in the head in South Gate by an unknown assailant.
“I think the worst period in the history of the city is now behind us,” Gonzalez said. “I’ve already gotten a lot of calls. People are happy, they’re glad it’s over. There was a lot of anticipation, believe me.”
Gonzalez credited The Times’ coverage of the Robles administration with focusing attention on what was going on in the city. “I used to tell people, and they wouldn’t believe it,” he said.
Councilman Bill DeWitt, 65, said he hoped the sentence would be a wake-up call about the consequences of public corruption.
Robles’ sentencing was much anticipated in South Gate and other southeast Los Angeles County cities.
He was convicted in July 2005, but his sentencing was more than a year in coming.
But once he took the podium Tuesday to address the judge, the baby-faced Robles displayed his panache with words.
He made references to discussing city business with associates in steam rooms, where sexual activities occurred “because that’s what happens at the masseuse.”
And with moist eyes, he turned and apologized to a woman in the gallery for having told her husband he was fired, and for having called her an expletive -- using the expletive.
But he also referred to what he called “the nebulous concept of Albert having power.” Robles said that was largely a figment of people’s imagination.
He told the judge that he could never vote on city issues, and had no power to bend anyone to his will.
Robles described himself as a “court jester” who gained knowledge of city leaders’ “intimate thoughts” and who had a knack for knowing what direction things were going in the city. As a result, Robles said, he was able to cultivate an image of power.
“I went around making things appear as if I made them happen,” he insisted. “I made myself bigger than I was.”
He said he aggressively sought campaign donations, but denied ever breaking the law.
“I was immoral, your honor,” Robles said, “but my conduct was not illegal.”
But the judge remained skeptical, and perplexed by Robles’ defense. At one point, he asked Robles whether he was admitting to having committed a crime, just not the ones he was charged with.
“Yes, your honor,” Robles responded, apologizing for his behavior, but not for having done anything illegal.
The judge ordered Robles to pay $639,000 in restitution and ordered him taken into custody. Two federal marshals put on white gloves and handcuffed the ex-treasurer. Garrido, 54, was sentenced to four years; Espinoza, 52, to 10 months; and Klistoff, 43, to six months in prison.
In South Gate, Robles’ argument that he had no power left city leaders dumbstruck.
“He struck the fear of God into employees,” DeWitt said. “He was very powerful. He controlled the Planning Commission, he controlled the City Council, and the inner workings of the city. If you needed a permit for anything, you had to make a sizable political contribution. But a bribe is a bribe”
Assemblyman Hector De La Torre (D-South Gate), a former city councilman who had many battles with Robles, said the sentencing was a symbolic victory for the city.
“He brought the city to its knees,” De La Torre said. “We were so close to having to go bankrupt. We stopped the car just before it headed over the cliff. A few more months and that car would have burst into flames down in a ravine.”