SACRAMENTO — The corruption trial of a former state senator and an influential lobbyist, set to begin today, is likely to turn into a gloves-off fight over the credibility of the prosecution's star witness, imprisoned ex-Sen. Alan Robbins.
Former Sen. Paul B. Carpenter and lobbyist Clayton R. Jackson are standing trial in U.S. District Court in the latest in a string of cases growing out of a seven-year FBI probe.
For both sides, much will depend on Robbins, a former San Fernando Valley Democrat who resigned from the Legislature in disgrace while admitting to a variety of corruption charges.
Robbins' testimony and conversations he secretly recorded after he agreed to cooperate with the FBI are expected to form the backbone of the U.S. attorney's evidence against Jackson, say lawyers familiar with the case.
The defense is promising to portray Robbins as a liar who will say anything keep his bargain to cooperate with the government in return for a reduced prison term.
Relying in part on Robbins' claims, a federal grand jury last February indicted Jackson, 50, on racketeering, money laundering and mail fraud charges. Carpenter, 65, was indicted on charges of mail fraud, money laundering and obstruction of justice. Both men pleaded not guilty.
"Robbins' believability and honesty is the linchpin of the government's case," Donald Heller, Jackson's lawyer, said Monday as he prepared for the trial, expected to last four to eight weeks.
In a document outlining his case, Heller repeatedly questioned the credibility of Robbins, who built a reputation as both an adroit lawmaker and a private deal maker.
Heller contended in pretrial submissions that Robbins committed perjury by denying at a 1981 trial that he had sex with underage girls. The then-senator was acquitted on all counts. Heller described the veteran lawmaker as lacking "a traceable element of morality and integrity" and maintained that Robbins initiated a scheme to extort money from Jackson.
But the grand jury said the lobbyist and Robbins formed a corrupt relationship that allowed the lawmaker to collect thousands of dollars in bribes and gave the lobbyist virtual control of a state Senate seat.
"Clearly, it's a very important trial. Any public corruption trial is very important," said U.S. Atty. Robert M. Twiss, stressing that in this instance "the defendants are important players in the political community."
As a senator, Carpenter rose to be the Senate Democratic caucus chairman, a major political fund-raising post. In 1986, he won a seat on the State Board of Equalization, but he was later forced off after he was convicted on extortion, racketeering and conspiracy charges. That conviction was overturned and Carpenter is awaiting a new trial.
Jackson, an imposing 6-foot, 6-inch lawyer, has been a top lobbyist for 20 years, especially on behalf of the insurance industry. Last year, business clients paid his firm $2.1 million, making it the second-biggest moneymaker among lobbying operations.
In an outline of its case, prosecutors said they plan to show that Jackson offered Robbins a $250,000 bribe so that the lawmaker--then chairman of the Senate Insurance, Claims and Corporations Committee--would shift troublesome workers' compensation issues to "the friendly confines" of his committee.
Prosecutors say they will show, based on the tapes, that Jackson assured Robbins that $250,000 was "doable" and that he was sure he could make a first installment of $50,000.
The government anticipates that top workers' compensation insurance executives will testify about Jackson's efforts to solicit money "on an emergency basis" during the summer and fall of 1991, when Robbins was secretly recording conversations with Jackson during walks outside the Capitol, during breakfasts and on the telephone.
Jackson is also accused of inducing unsuspecting clients to make contributions to Carpenter's campaign committee. The grand jury has alleged that Carpenter used the mail system to funnel the funds to a public relations firm operated by Jennifer Goddard, a onetime aide to Robbins. She allegedly used the funds for Robbins' benefit.
The government anticipates that both Robbins and Goddard will testify about conversations they had with Carpenter "about devising a false explanation" for the payments, prosecutors said.
The charges stem from an ongoing probe of political corruption in state government in which two Democratic lawmakers, three legislative aides, a coastal commissioner and a former lobbyist have been convicted on corruption charges.
Assemblyman Pat Nolan (R-Glendale) and Sen. Frank Hill (R-Whittier) are scheduled to go on trial next year on charges that grew out of the undercover investigation.