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Capitol Probe Shifts to Coastal Commissioner

December 10, 1991|PAUL JACOBS and MARK GLADSTONE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

SACRAMENTO — The political corruption investigation that led to the resignation of Sen. Alan Robbins last month is now focused on one of the most influential non-elected public officials in the state, Mark L. Nathanson, a tough, combative member of the California Coastal Commission with strong ties to Assembly Speaker Willie Brown.

A Beverly Hills real estate broker and business consultant, Nathanson is the unnamed "public official" cited in charges against Robbins in the extortion of more than $200,000 from a San Diego hotel developer, sources familiar with the investigation told The Times.

Nathanson has not been charged and, through his attorney, has denied any impropriety.

Nathanson is unique among those targeted by federal authorities--the first political appointee to undergo FBI scrutiny since the investigation of political corruption began in the Capitol six years ago. The targeting of Nathanson, as well as the recent search of a prominent lobbyist's office, signals that investigators have moved beyond their original objective of exposing and prosecuting corrupt lawmakers and legislative aides.

U. S. Atty. George O'Connell and his investigators are following the probe wherever it leads them--even if that takes them outside Capitol corridors to the offices of lobbyists or the meeting rooms of appointed boards and commissions.

In this instance, the investigation has led authorities to a man never elected to office, a brash, gun-toting political fund-raiser who owes his public career to friends in high places.

Appointed to a series of state and local positions, Nathanson has been dogged periodically with questions about his conduct in office in a public career that spans almost three decades.

It was the Speaker of the Assembly, a liberal San Francisco Democrat, who placed Republican Nathanson on the Coastal Commission in 1986--despite the fact that Nathanson had pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor attempted theft charge after being accused of taking a cash bribe in a West Hollywood parking lot 12 years earlier.

Brown has said he was unaware of the incident at the time of the appointment and, when it was called to his attention, he dismissed it as too long ago to be relevant.

Nathanson is one of four Brown appointees on the 12-member coastal panel, which regulates real estate development along 1,100 miles of California shoreline--a job of potentially enormous environmental and economic consequence.

Nathanson's close ties to top Democrats, including Robbins and Brown, have made him virtually unassailable as a commissioner, despite periodic complaints by environmentalists that he has been too friendly to development interests.

Even before Robbins' agreement to plead guilty was announced, these critics, including at least one lawmaker, were calling for Brown to remove Nathanson from the commission--a move that the Speaker is free to make whenever he chooses.

In recent months, fearing the political impact of a possible indictment, some of the Speaker's associates have told him privately that Nathanson should be asked to step aside at least until federal investigators close their investigation, according to one source close to Brown.

But Brown, who attaches high value to personal loyalty, has steadfastly refused to remove Nathanson.

The Speaker "holds to the old-fashioned belief that someone is innocent until proven guilty," Brown's press secretary, Michael Reese, told a reporter a year ago, shortly after Nathanson's home was raided by FBI agents armed with a search warrant.

Nathanson could not be reached for comment after the filing of charges against Robbins, but his attorney, Robert L. Shapiro, said his client is "going about his business activity and his work, and in his opinion, he hasn't done anything wrong."

Sources familiar with the federal probe say authorities are investigating allegations that Nathanson and Robbins acted together to extort $235,000 or more from Jack Naiman, a San Diego hotel developer.

These sources say Naiman has told a federal grand jury he believed that if he failed to make payments as directed by Robbins, his plans to build a major hotel in La Jolla would be scuttled and he would never be allowed to develop property along the California coast--the jurisdiction governed by Nathanson and his fellow coastal commissioners.

With Naiman making payouts at Robbins' direction, the money was dispersed in circuitous ways, say those familiar with the charges against Robbins. According to the sources, the developer sent a check for $50,000 to a well-connected Century City law firm--Wyman, Bautzer, Christensen, Kuchel & Silbert. When Naiman, who apparently never spoke with Nathanson, learned that the money was credited to an account held for Nathanson, he demanded and received the money back.

Howard Weitzman, who served as a spokesman for the law firm before the partnership split up, acknowledged recently that federal investigators subpoenaed the firm's records of the Naiman transaction.

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