LONG BEACH — With colleagues and the community rallying around him, Councilman James Wilson expressed surprise and disappointment over his conviction last week on 21 counts of mail fraud for taking more than $50,000 from convicted political fixer W. Patrick Moriarty.
"I'm very much surprised" by the guilty verdict, the 58-year-old councilman said in an interview Thursday, a day after the ruling in Los Angeles federal court. "I felt that I was innocent and I thought the jury would see that."
Wilson also said that he would consult with his attorney to determine if he can avoid being forced from his District 6 council seat until the verdict has been appealed. Nonetheless, his attorney said in a separate interview Thursday that it is unlikely Wilson will be able to remain on the council.
Under state law, Wilson must resign or be automatically removed from office after he is sentenced on May 16. Once a vacancy occurs, a special election must be held within 120 days.
Wilson expressed qualms because he cannot file an appeal in federal court until after he is sentenced, forcing the councilman into a situation where he must give up his post before the legal process has been completed.
"I want to wait and see what my options are," Wilson said. "I want to see if that appeals process is correct and then go from there."
Convicted on 21 Counts
Besides losing the council seat he has held for the past 16 years, Wilson faces a 5-year sentence and $1,000 fine for each of the 21 felony counts on which he was found guilty. He was acquitted on four other counts.
Wilson's council colleagues expressed solace over the outcome of the trial, lauding the longtime councilman as a pillar of the community.
"I was shocked," Mayor Ernie Kell said. "I thought he would be vindicated. Jim has done an outstanding job for the city and his district. I thought the evidence supported vindication."
Wilson, the only black ever elected to the Long Beach council, said the requirement that he forfeit his post prior to an appeal seemed "awfully silly" and "a little bit backward."
Nonetheless, Terry Amdur, the Pasadena lawyer who represented Wilson during the trial, held out virtually no hope that Wilson can avoid forfeiting his council spot.
"It looks like he's going to have to resign," Amdur said. "There's no way I can (see) him getting around that. The law is what it is."
Amdur added, however, that he will encourage Wilson to appeal the case, expressing confidence that the verdict can be overturned.
Forced From Office
In recent decades, only one other Long Beach councilman has been forced from office. Councilman Wayne Sharp resigned in December, 1974, while facing a felony charge of receiving stolen property. The charge, however, was later reduced to a misdemeanor and Sharp was fined $1,000 and placed on probation.
Prosecutor Richard E. Drooyan, chief assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, said that he has not yet determined the sentence he will recommend for Wilson. Likewise, Amdur would not speculate on what sort of sentence Wilson might face.
Among the issues Drooyan will take into consideration are the crimes committed, Wilson's background and his ill health. No decision will be made until a probation report is completed prior to the sentencing hearing.
In similar cases, politicians have been able to drastically reduce the penalties against them by performing "public service" tasks while their cases have wound through the appeals process, Amdur said.
Noting Wilson's frail physical condition, however, Amdur expressed doubt that Wilson could undertake such strenuous efforts. Wilson suffers from a degenerative heart condition and has been told by doctors that he should cut back on physical activities, Amdur said.
Wilson said on Thursday that, despite the verdict, he was happy to put the trial behind him. "In terms of my health, I feel well," he said. "I guess the indecision and waiting was worse for me than knowing (the verdict)."
Verdict Hits Family Hard
Members of his family were hit hard by the verdict, but continue to hold out hope, Wilson said. Among the family members who attended the trial were the councilman's wife Audrey, his daughter Cynthia, and mother Willie Slider.
"They're OK, but they're shaken up," Wilson said. "They're holding up."
Wilson said that he was surprised by the jury's decision and questioned what evidence led to the verdict.
"Everything's running through my mind," he said. "I don't know what convinced them. If they went through that material carefully, exhibit by exhibit, I don't see how they came to that conclusion."
Amdur said he felt that the jury ruled against Wilson because prosecutors presented evidence that the councilman had made contradictory statements about his relationship with Moriarty during interviews with FBI agents and in newspaper articles.