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Montoya Convicted on 7 Corruption Charges : Justice: State senator is found guilty of trading his vote for money. Colleagues pressure him to resign before he is ousted.

February 03, 1990|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — State Sen. Joseph B. Montoya was convicted Friday on seven counts of extortion, racketeering and money-laundering, becoming the first California legislator in 35 years to be found guilty of felony corruption charges while in office.

In a dramatic climax to the two-month trial, the federal court jury rejected Montoya's contentions that he never traded his vote for money and had been "set up" by federal undercover agents.

Montoya--who sat impassively as the verdicts were read--was acquitted on three other charges of extortion, including one involving actor Ed Asner. Montoya's lawyers said they would appeal the guilty verdicts.

The 50-year-old Democrat from Whittier faces up to 20 years in prison on each of the seven counts and could be fined a total of more than $1.75 million. Under the state Constitution, he does not automatically forfeit his seat in the Legislature but could be expelled by a two-thirds vote of the Senate.

Within hours of the verdict, at least five of Montoya's colleagues began calling on the veteran legislator to resign before the Senate moves to oust him.

Montoya, who left the courtroom without comment, was the only legislator indicted in an ongoing federal investigation of political corruption in the state Capitol. He was snared in an FBI sting operation in June, 1988, when he accepted a $3,000 payment from an undercover agent at a breakfast meeting near the Capitol that was secretly videotaped.

The guilty verdicts were a major victory for U.S. Atty. David F. Levi, who has headed the controversial 4-year-old investigation and personally helped prosecute Montoya.

Levi called on other victims of legislative extortion to step forward, and he warned state lawmakers that they will remain under close scrutiny by his office.

"We believe the conviction will be helpful to us as we pursue a public corruption program, one that is always in place and always following leads," Levi said. "One of the most successful things about this case is that it shows that a public official who takes campaign contributions and honorariums and is smart enough to report them can still be convicted."

Members of the seven-woman, five-man jury said the panel looked for ways to acquit Montoya. But in the end, the jurors said, they found that the explanations Montoya gave during four days on the witness stand did not hold up.

"I wish he had been able to defend himself better," said juror Emily Ingram of Benicia. "It wasn't an easy decision to make. We toiled over it, all of us. We lost sleep. We couldn't eat. . . . We really tried to find him innocent."

The Connection

Jurors said they were persuaded not so much by the videotape of Montoya taking money from an undercover FBI agent but by the cumulative evidence that he sought payments in connection with various bills pending in the Legislature.

"It was the connection between the money and the legislation," juror Greg Coumas of Stockton told reporters at a press conference after the verdict was announced.

Specifically, the jury found Montoya guilty of extortion in taking the $3,000 payment from the undercover agent who was pushing legislation to benefit the FBI's dummy shrimp company. In accepting the money, Montoya promised he would "be there" to vote for the bill when it came up on the Senate floor.

The jury also found the senator guilty of attempting to extort payments from Florida insurance executive Douglas O. Ruedlinger, the National Football League Players' Assn., then-sports agent Michael Trope and lobbyists representing foreign medical universities.

One of the more compelling pieces of evidence, jurors said, was a "schedule of fees" Montoya sent to Trope spelling out when he should pay $10,000 in campaign contributions and honorariums.

In addition to finding the senator guilty of extortion, the jury decided that the five acts of extortion constituted a pattern of illegal behavior that violated the federal anti-racketeering statute.

Laundering Count

And the jury found the senator guilty of violating a money-laundering law designed primarily for the prosecution of drug dealers. Montoya broke the law simply by depositing the payment from the undercover agent in his personal bank account, the jury found.

Montoya was acquitted on three counts of extortion alleging that he had solicited payments from Asner, then-president of the Screen Actors Guild, the Allan Co. recycling firm and the California Independent Petroleum Assn.

On those counts, members of the jury said, there was not sufficient evidence that Montoya solicited any payments. In particular, they pointed to the fact that Asner had difficulty remembering details of his encounter with Montoya in 1985.

Wider Distress

Apart from the case against Montoya, several jurors said they were distressed by evidence presented during the trial that other legislators are frequently influenced by money they receive from special-interest groups.

"He's not the only one," said Cindy Tufts, a juror from Carmichael.

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