SAN DIEGO — A prominent Imperial County farmer who had pleaded guilty in U. S. District Court here to felony tax and bribery charges and paid about $22 million in back taxes was sentenced Monday to 6 1/2 years in prison and fined $1.25 million.
Mario Saikhon, who ran one of the largest farming operations in Southern California, apologized to U. S. District Judge Gordon Thompson Jr. for what he called a "breach of trust."
Saikhon, 59, was accused of giving $647,518 in bribes to an Internal Revenue Service agent to evade more than $10 million in taxes. Reading from notes and pausing several times to maintain his composure, he told the judge: "I have no excuse because what I did was inexcusable."
The sentencing closes a case that involved the largest bribe in the annals of the Internal Revenue Service. It also produced the largest settlement of an individual's tax case in U. S. history.
And it stands to dominate events in the Imperial County town of Holtville, population 5,100, where Saikhon's self-made farming empire was based. Knowing he was headed for prison, Saikhon told local officials several weeks ago that he planned to lay off his 2,215 employees by Oct. 2 and close his farm.
"It will really hurt, not only in Holtville but around our county," because the Imperial County unemployment rate is already about 32%, Holtville City Manager Richard Ferguson said Monday. "It's sad. We hope there's a demand for (Saikhon's) business, that someone will take it over and that it won't be as bad as it sounds. But so far we've heard nothing."
From 1985 to 1990, according to the indictment, Saikhon's fruit and vegetable fields--producing lettuce, cantaloupe and a variety of other crops--grossed more than $130 million.
The indictment alleged that Saikhon paid the $647,518 in bribes during the 1980s to IRS auditor Robert Morales, to concoct a scheme to evade more than $10 million in taxes.
Morales, 63, of El Cajon, is serving a 12-year prison term. His son, Robert A. Morales Jr., 29, of El Cajon, admitted that he also took part in the scheme, and is serving a 41-month prison sentence.
Thompson ordered Saikhon to surrender Nov. 9 to federal marshals. Saikhon remains free on $5 million bail.