LONG BEACH — Though federal prosecutors accuse Councilman James Wilson of defrauding this city's residents of their right to honest government, his constituents and a number of prominent community leaders have rallied behind him in the final days before his trial.
Wilson, the only black ever to serve on the Long Beach City Council, was indicted Jan. 23 on charges of taking $53,500 from a fireworks manufacturer in exchange for his support of fireworks legislation.
His trial in federal court in Los Angeles is set to begin on Tuesday, but the defense has asked for a hearing to argue for a delay because of Wilson's ongoing heart problems.
Two weeks ago, representatives from more than a dozen of the black community's churches called a special meeting to thank Wilson for his 16 years of council service and to solicit contributions for his legal defense. Supporters said $2,000 was raised.
Four days later, another $15,000 was donated at a reception by the newly formed Black Business and Professional Assn. of Long Beach, sponsors said.
Mayor Ernie Kell and Councilmen Thomas Clark and Marc A. Wilder were there to lend their support. So were City Atty. John R. Calhoun, City Prosecutor John Vander Lans, City Auditor Robert Fronke, Police Officers Assn. President Douglas Drummond and many of the community's top business leaders.
"Jim Wilson has been a plus for the city of Long Beach," said Kell, a friend since 1975. "Overall, I would rate him one of the top council members, one of the most effective. He gets along well with his colleagues, and he's able to get his agenda through."
Wilson, who has strongly supported downtown construction projects and an array of human-rights issues, has voted consistently, the mayor said, "in the best interests of this city. People can be accused of something, but that doesn't mean they're guilty."
To some supporters, the guilt or innocence of Wilson, a one-time City Hall janitor who directed anti-poverty jobs programs before capturing the District 6 council seat in 1970, makes little difference in how they see him.
"Whether he wins or loses, it really doesn't influence the way people who know him perceive him," said William Barnes, dean of the Pacific Coast Campus of Long Beach City College, who has known Wilson for 40 years.
"They would lament that he had broken the law," said Barnes, "but they wouldn't be involved with any of that. They'd talk about all the contributions and sacrifices he's made in order to represent the people."
It was not until Wilson's election that the black community started to believe that "our system really does work," Barnes said. "So, the important thing about Jim Wilson is what he represents to this community."
Efforts to Legalize Fireworks
Wilson, 58, is accused of taking the $53,500 from political corruption figure W. Patrick Moriarty from September, 1978, to March, 1983, while leading unsuccessful efforts in 1979 and 1981 to legalize "safe and sane" fireworks in Long Beach.
Prosecutors say that most of the money was paid with 22 checks sent through the mail. Wilson is also charged with illegally concealing those payments on four statements of economic interest mailed to the state. In all, Wilson has been charged with 26 counts of mail fraud.
If convicted, the councilman would be removed from office and face a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment and a $1,000 fine on each count.
The indictment also said that Wilson used his council position in 1982 to try to persuade state legislators to vote for a bill that would have taken away from cities and counties the power to ban the safe and sane fireworks.
Wilson's attorney, Terry Amdur, has argued that his client was merely a consultant to one of Moriarty's companies, and that Wilson supported the sale of fireworks before meeting Moriarty.
In a recent interview, Wilson said part of his trial defense will be that he first voted for safe and sane fireworks in 1970, shortly after being elected to the council and years before he met Moriarty.
Profits to Other Cities
He voted for the sales of fireworks because the main effect of Long Beach's ban was to allow organizations in nearby cities such as Signal Hill to monopolize profits, Wilson said.
"In my district, a very poor district, we had organizations just trying to survive, but nobody made any money off fireworks," he said.
Wilson would not discuss his role in supporting fireworks measures before the council in 1979 and 1981.
Kell, Clark and Councilman Wallace Edgerton all said that Wilson did not lobby them on those votes.
"It's not Jim's style to lobby," said Kell of the low-key Wilson. Clark, an opponent of fireworks, said that he and Wilson had debated before the 1970 vote, and that Wilson knew where he stood.
And Edgerton, who voted with Wilson, said: "I'm confident Jim's position on fireworks was sincere. . . . And I certainly have not seen anything that would lead me to believe he is anything but an honorable guy."
Voted His Conscience