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The G-Man, the Shrimp Scam and Sacramento's Big Sting : FBI AGENT JAMES WEDICK'S UNDERCOVER OPERATION NETTED 14 PUBLIC OFFICIALS. BUT HAS IT CHANGED THE WAY THE STATE LEGISLATURE WORKS?

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

Whatever Shahabian's misgivings, his hundreds of hours of secretly recorded conversations with lawmakers and their aides were exactly what the authorities needed to prove criminal wrongdoing. Quoting from the tapes, Wedick persuaded a federal magistrate to allow a historic 1988 raid on the Capitol offices of Frank Hill, then an assemblyman, and three other lawmakers, Assemblyman Pat Nolan (R-Glendale), Sen. Joseph B. Montoya (D-Whittier) and Assemblywoman Gwen Moore (D-Los Angeles). Moore was the only one not prosecuted.

"This is Jim Wedick. Today's date is July 10th, Wednesday, 1991. The time is approximately 7:39 a.m. in the morning. I'm with Alan Robbins. He's going to, he's about to meet with Clay Jackson at the El Rancho Hotel."

With this terse send-off, Wedick directed Robbins, a San Fernando Valley Democratic senator, to a breakfast meeting with Jackson, a cigar-chomping, 6-foot-6, 300-pound attorney. Corporate clients paid Jackson's firm, SRJ Jackson, Barish & Associates, more than $2 million a year to represent their interests in the state Legislature, making it the highest-grossing lobbying firm at the Capitol. Wearing a wire and transmitter, Robbins walked into the aging West Sacramento motel for his rendezvous with Jackson. Wedick and two prosecutors parked nearby to eavesdrop.

Just a month earlier during a meeting at the Hyatt Regency hotel, Robbins had agreed to cooperate with Wedick. The FBI's suspicions about him were aroused during the fight over the 1986 shrimp bill, when an aide to the senator solicited a $500 contribution from Gulf Shrimp Fisheries. But Robbins wasn't targeted by Wedick until several years later, when a San Diego hotel developer charged that the senator had extorted $250,000 from him. What clinched the case was Wedick's discovery that Robbins was laundering this and other payoffs, directing the money to a stable of girlfriends, including a stripper and a former prostitute, on the payroll of a Santa Monica public relations firm.

Savvy, intelligent, manipulative, the deeply tanned and well-dressed Robbins irritated his colleagues with his brashness almost from the moment he arrived in Sacramento in 1973. Robbins, who made millions of dollars as a land developer, seemed to always have a hidden agenda. In 1981, his career was almost derailed when he faced charges that he had had sex with two 16-year-old girls. He was acquitted and his legislative career thrived as he raised huge contributions from the insurance industry and other special interests. As a champion fund-raiser, Robbins was tolerated by his colleagues, even though he was one of the most disliked members of the Legislature. So it came as no surprise that he was a target of prosecutors.

Confronted with overwhelming evidence, Robbins signed on as an enthusiastic member of Wedick's team, agreeing to plead guilty and cooperate in exchange for a lighter sentence. Over breakfast with Jackson, he would try to get the insurance lobbyist to put a price on a worker's compensation bill important to his clients.

As Jackson was about to have his coffee refilled, Robbins asked him for "a quantification" of what he was prepared to pay for his help on the bill.

"You mean how important it is to the comp people?" Jackson asked a few seconds later.

"Yes."

"Immense . . .I could probably put something together on this in two days."

"Such as?"

"Maybe a quarter?"

The shorthand phrase--an offer of a $250,000 bribe--was what the prosecutors needed to convict Jackson, who is now appealing.

Jackson's attorney, Donald H. Heller, repeatedly objected to the FBI's use of Robbins, an admitted felon, as an undercover operative. The most vocal of the defense lawyers in the sting cases, he also attacked FBI tactics that he claimed were intended to intimidate witnesses. In a confidential letter to the court, Heller contended that Wedick attempted to scare off potential character witnesses for Jackson by asking them about his sexual relationships, which were unrelated to the charges against him. These questions were "calculated to intimidate prospective defense witnesses and smear Mr. Jackson's good name in Mr. Jackson's community," Heller complained. As Heller's letter makes clear, however, Wedick first got approval for the questions about Jackson's sexual behavior from the U.S. attorney's office.

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