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Tucker Gets Prison Term for Extortion

Court: Saying she is bound by federal guidelines, judge sentences him to 27 months.

April 18, 1996|DAVID ROSENZWEIG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Contending to the end that he was the victim of government entrapment, former Congressman Walter R. Tucker III was sentenced Wednesday to 27 months in federal custody for extortion and income tax fraud.

In pronouncing sentence, U.S. District Judge Consuelo B. Marshall said she thought that Tucker, 38, would have been "an appropriate candidate to serve his sentence in the community."

But, she added, she was bound by federal sentencing guidelines to send him to prison.

As such, the sentence imposed was lighter than the 46 to 57 months sought by prosecutors or the 30 to 37 months recommended by a probation officer.

Marshall said she had received more than 200 letters in support of Tucker from an array of people, from members of Congress to clergy and neighbors in Compton.

Tucker was convicted in December of extorting $30,000 from a businessman while serving as Compton's mayor in 1991 and 1992 and for failing to report the payments to the IRS.

A week later, the two-term Democratic lawmaker resigned from his 37th Congressional District seat, which covers Compton, Carson, Watts, Lynwood and parts of Long Beach.

Addressing the court before his sentencing, Tucker challenged the prosecution's portrayal of him as a greedy and corrupt politician.

"I did not get into politics to line my pockets," he told the judge, but to continue a tradition of public service started by his late father, a three-term mayor of Compton.

"Before I even got my seat warm" as mayor, "there was a trap set for me. . . . They have twisted everything around. It was a setup from the beginning."

Defense attorney Robert Ramsey suggested that Tucker, who is African American, may have been the victim of "young prosecutors" who had been pursuing "young black professional defendants" with excessive zeal.

Apparently in response to the defense claims, U.S. Atty. Nora Manella said later: "We will pursue allegations of corruption by elected officials wherever they lead. In this case, they led to Mr. Tucker, who by selling his votes sold out the citizens he represented."

The most damaging evidence against Tucker during the three-month trial was nearly 30 hours of secretly recorded FBI video and audiotapes that documented payoffs from businessman-turned-FBI informant John Macardican.

Macardican, who made $30,000 in payments to Tucker with money supplied by the FBI, was seeking permission to build a $250-million waste-conversion plant in Compton.

Weeks after taking office as mayor in 1991, Tucker solicited his first bribe from Macardican, according to the government, and over the next 14 months, received seven payoffs, all monitored by the FBI.

Excerpts of the tapes were played for the jury. In one payoff, Macardican could be seen counting out $2,000 in cash, handing the pile of bills to the mayor and telling him: "That plus the eight [thousand dollars] we agreed on should secure your vote."

Tucker made no attempt to contradict him. In fact, he smiled broadly and told the businessman, "We'll be friendly, definitely."

Tucker's lawyers contended he was entrapped. The jury was asked to believe that Tucker committed the acts for which he was charged, but was coerced and manipulated into accepting the money by an overzealous FBI operative.

However, that explanation conflicted with Tucker's testimony on the witness stand that the videotaped payments from Macardican were part of a legitimate business deal. He said he had an oral contract with Macardican to consult on the waste-conversion project and that some of the money was an interest-free loan from the businessman.

After the verdict, several jurors said they were troubled by the defense's inconsistent theories.

"It was like [the defense] was saying, 'Pick one of the above. See what fits,' " said one juror.

In calling for a stiff punishment for Tucker, prosecutors focused on what they said was his perjury on the witness stand and his refusal to accept responsibility for his wrongdoing.

This was not Tucker's first conviction. In 1988, he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of altering a public record and served three years on probation.

That conviction grew out of a case Tucker handled while a Los Angeles County deputy district attorney. Tucker tampered with evidence in a narcotics case he was prosecuting, lied about it to a judge and was fired.

Then in 1991, Tucker ran to fill the Compton mayor's seat left vacant by his father's death, beating out Councilwoman Patricia Moore in a bitter contest.

Like Tucker, Moore later would become enmeshed in Compton's corruption scandal. She faces trial in July on 25 counts of extortion and tax fraud.

Although Tucker was sentenced to 27 months in custody, he could wind up spending no more than six months behind bars.

Judge Marshall agreed to recommend to the Bureau of Prisons that Tucker be considered for its "boot camp" program. Defense attorney Robert Ramsey said the program involves six months of rigorous physical and motivational training and the rest of the sentence performing community service.

As an alternative, the judge also agreed to recommend that Tucker serve time in the Lompoc or Boron prisons so he could be close to his family. After his conviction, Tucker, an ordained minister, said he would start a prison ministry if he had to serve jail time.

Tucker is to report to the Bureau of Prisons on May 20, but that date could be postponed if, as expected, his attorneys appeal. Ramsey said Wednesday that such an appeal would be filed within 10 days and that entrapment would be a key issue.

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