BURBANK — Still protesting his innocence a week after he pleaded guilty to racketeering charges, a tearful former Assemblyman Pat Nolan presented the case for his defense to a roomful of emotional supporters Thursday night, walking them through the FBI's own recorded evidence against him.
Surrounded by about 170 loyal backers who embraced him not only in his years of political glory but now, in his hour of disgrace, Nolan told the gathering at Burbank's Holiday Inn that, "I'm going to do my time, but they are not going to shut me up."
Defiant despite the tears in his eyes at times, Nolan told the crowd that he had no regrets over his guilty plea because "I am now free to speak my mind."
He plans to spend his prison time writing a book about "the abuses of the federal judicial system," Nolan said. "I want to change it so other people don't have to go through this torment.
"They've taken their best shot," Nolan said of federal prosecutors who secured indictments against him on six counts of racketeering, conspiracy, extortion and money laundering.
"They've shot me and they've made me mad. Now I'm a wounded bull elephant."
In exchange for a 33-month sentence--instead of the eight years he might have faced had he gone to trial and lost--Nolan pleaded guilty to one count of racketeering last week.
In so doing, he filed a sworn statement in U.S. District Court describing his Assembly office as a racketeering enterprise for extorting campaign contributions in 1988 from those who sought legislative favors.
But Thursday night he said that admission was false. He admitted accepting the $20,000 in question--which the FBI said were bribes--but maintained he did so only to strengthen the Republican leadership, not to benefit himself.
The prospect of facing overzealous prosecutors and unfavorable courtroom odds--not his conscience--led him to plead guilty, Nolan said.
In an attempt to show how the FBI and U.S. attorneys fell short of proving he intended to sell his vote, Nolan passed out transcripts of the FBI's secretly recorded conversations with him.
In one session between Nolan and an undercover agent seeking assurances that Nolan would persuade the governor to sign a bill, Nolan is quoted as saying, "There's no way we can guarantee anything like that."
The assemblyman also maintained that he did not bring up the subject of campaign contributions directly with the agent. He also played the FBI's secretly made videotape of a hotel room meeting in which an agent passed two checks for $5,000 apiece to Nolan.
The low angle of the camera and the grainy black-and-white quality of the film was meant to give the tape a sinister appearance, he said.
Nolan said he will spend the next month before he has to report to prison March 28 making arrangements for the support of his wife, Gail, and three young children, ages 5 and under.
He hopes to serve time in a federal prison in Pleasanton, he said, because it is only 1 1/2 hours away from his family's home in suburban Sacramento.
While he's in prison, supporters said, a trust fund being set up to receive donations will help Nolan's wife pay the household bills.
If he had fought the charges and received a stiffer sentence than the 33 months he agreed to, Nolan said: "I couldn't take that time away from my family. I just couldn't face that."
Several times during his speech, a tearful Nolan had to stop to regain composure. "I'll be fine in a minute," he told supporters when he choked up while speaking of his children. "Just let me work through this."
The tall, burly, 43-year-old's presentation also moved to tears many in the crowd, which overflowed a ballroom.
With tears welling in his eyes, Rand Brooks, a Glendale businessman and retired actor, said after the event: "He was framed, but good. When you read the actual transcript, you can't find anything wrong there. He's a straight-shooting honest guy."
Said Frank Barneburg, who runs a printing business in Burbank: "I came here looking for some answers. I already knew in my heart that he was innocent, but now I have proof."