Compton Councilman Floyd A. James decided to take his chances before a Superior Court judge--and to some extent, his constituents--last week when he pleaded no contest to an election fraud charge that could oust him from office, send him to jail or put him on probation.
In a bargain with state prosecutors, the 45-year-old James withdrew his long-standing not-guilty plea and gave up his right to challenge a Los Angeles County Grand Jury indictment that accused him of knowingly mailing a deceptive notice to voters in his 1985 reelection campaign.
Two other election fraud charges were dropped in exchange.
He Could Be Barred From Public Office
Now, when James is sentenced Feb. 27, it will be up to Superior Court Judge Aurelio Munoz to decide if the violation should be classified as a felony, disqualifying the two-term councilman from public office, or a less serious misdemeanor that nevertheless could draw a fine and up to a year in County Jail.
James had to either agree to that or face trial next month on all three felony election charges. Last October, co-defendant Roderick Wright accepted a straight misdemeanor plea bargain. But district attorney officials acknowledge that they withdrew a similar offer to James because they suspected that the two-term councilman was exerting his influence over a key prosecution witness accused of violating city nuisance laws.
The City Council recently voted to declare the home of witness Francesca Houpe to be a nuisance because police reported finding three marijuana plants in her backyard shortly after she testified at James' preliminary hearing last summer. Police say they were first told about the marijuana when James called to report an anonymous tip.
Attorney Expects Misdemeanor Sentence
"I do not believe that he will face a felony in this matter," James' attorney Johnnie L. Cochran said after Thursday's court session. "I am convinced that this court will impose a sentence that takes everything into account . . . I feel comfortable with this judge."
On Cochran's advice, James declined to make any comment until after his sentencing.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Steven Sowders, chief of the Special Investigations Division overseeing cases involving elected officials, said the plea bargain was fair to everyone.
"I can't say how people (in the community) will feel," Sowders said. "But if I had a sentencing pending on Feb. 27 and could go to jail for a year I couldn't say I'd be getting away with anything."
Sowders stressed that before Munoz issues his sentence, he will review a probation report designed to assess James' background. The councilman has no prior criminal record, but Sowders said the report could also discuss the way his constituents feel about the charge he now has refused to contest.
"Anyone who wants to contribute relevant information (about the councilman) should contact the probation officer so he can gage the full effect of the election," Sowders said. "We've received letters from both sides, his supporters as well as his detractors.
"Who are the victims in this case? The people of Compton."
James came in second to challenger Patricia A. Moore in the 1985 council primary. Shortly after, according to the Grand Jury indictment, the James campaign sent the deceptive mailer implying that Moore had been disqualified for the general election.
In addition, James was accused of vote-buying by offering free record albums to voters who pledged their support. When the general election was held, James defeated Moore by a margin of 2 to 1.
Moore continues to press a civil suit that seeks to overturn the election results.