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December 11, 1994|Mark Gladstone and Paul Jacobs | Times reporters Mark Gladstone and Paul Jacobs cover government and politics from the Sacramento bureau

At the prosecution table in a wood-paneled federal courtroom in Sacramento sits FBI agent James J. Wedick Jr. His suit and tie are as drab as any plainclothes cop's, but there is something that sets him apart: the long brown hair, flecked with gray; the salt-and-pepper beard; the half-glasses that give him an almost scholarly air. For nearly a decade, through endless stakeouts, a failed marriage and bureaucratic hurdles, Wedick, 44, has spearheaded the most ambitious political corruption investigation in California history. Infiltrating the world of back-room deals and $1,000-a-plate dinners, he and his team snared five lawmakers, Sacramento's top lobbyist, a coastal commissioner and various aides. So far, they have not lost a case.

At the defense table is state Sen. Frank C. Hill. From the moment he was elected to the Assembly in 1982 at the age of 28, Hill seemed ticketed for statewide office. Popular with his colleagues, the Whittier lawmaker was in the inner circle of the Assembly Republican leadership, and he regularly lunched with the governor. Handsome. Brash. Always smiling. A prodigious fund-raiser. But Hill now faces charges that he extorted $2,500 from an undercover agent. His political career is in shreds, his legal bills mounting, and each of the three counts of extortion, money laundering and conspiracy against him carries a maximum prison term of 20 years.

As the lead-off witness against Hill last May, Wedick tells jurors that 12 years earlier, a "cooperating witness" told him that $30,000 could buy special-interest legislation in California. Wedick was happy to hear it, because he realized he had an opportunity to prove that lawmaking in the nation's most populous state was for sale. It confirmed his worst suspicions that California's reputation for squeaky clean politics was a facade, that it was as unsavory as the old Tammany Hall in his native New York City.

Why was it necessary, the prosecutor asks him, to set up a phony shrimp business to ensnare Hill and other legislators? It's the nature of the crime, Wedick instructs the jurors. In a bank robbery, the FBI is notified almost instantaneously. But political corruption is harder to detect. If a lobbyist "bribed a state legislator," he says, "he is not likely to report it to us and neither is the legislator."

When Hill's lawyer takes his turn, he tries to get Wedick to discredit a former Hill aide named Karin Watson, who is expected to provide crucial testimony. The lawyer presses Wedick to admit that the FBI entrapped Watson by plying her with expensive champagne. Wedick concedes that during secretly recorded conversations, Watson "sounded like she had a lot to drink." The defense attorney shoots back, "Didn't that concern you?" Wedick, an experienced witness, turns the question into an opportunity to slam Hill. "My chief concern was that I had a criminal violation," he bristles. Watson, he points out, "arranged for Frank Hill to co-author a bill for $10,000 long before" she was given champagne by an undercover informant.

Almost 100 miles southwest of the courthouse lies the Federal Prison Camp at Dublin. A neatly landscaped flower garden greets visitors to the complex of refurbished Army barracks that house the 300 nonviolent, white-collar inmates. Assigned four to a room, prisoners can place their own phone calls and spend as much as $165 a month at the commissary on such items as typewriter ribbon and perfume oils. There's no razor wire or chain link encircling the facility. In fact, there's no fence at all.

The camp has become a satellite of the state Capitol. On a recent day, former Assembly Republican Leader Pat Nolan, now prisoner 06833-097, scurries up a staircase, flashing a smile. A bulletin board lists former Coastal Commissioner Mark L. Nathanson--dubbed "commissioner to the stars" because of the help he offered prominent Hollywood figures--as a member of the prison's Toastmasters Club. So is onetime Assembly aide Tyrone Netters. Ex-legislative aide Darryl Freeman is also at the camp. Clayton R. Jackson, a hulking former college football player who became the Capitol's top lobbyist, waits for a visit from state Sen. Nicholas C. Petris.

Jackson and the four others at Dublin are among the 12 public officials arrested, indicted and convicted in Wedick's undercover operation. They once shaped the laws of California. Today, they are cutting weeds, fixing toilets or cooking meals, serving an average of four years in prison. Like them, Hill advanced his career in a political culture that relies on hefty campaign contributions as the currency of political action.

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