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Moreno Verdict: Guilty on All Counts

Courts: Federal jury agrees that Santa Ana councilman extorted money in plot for political control. Judge orders him held until sentencing.

September 06, 2000|RICHARD MAROSI and STUART PFEIFER and HECTOR BECERRA | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A federal jury on Tuesday convicted Santa Ana Councilman Ted R. Moreno on 25 counts of extortion, money laundering and mail fraud stemming from an elaborate scheme to win majority control on the City Council.

The conviction caps a four-year case in which Moreno, 33, accepted cash from a gas station owner with the promise of helping him secure a beer and wine li

cense; Moreno used the money in an unsuccessful attempt to elect several political allies to the council.

The case polarized the community, with some Latino leaders arguing that the outspoken councilman was unfairly singled out.

Moreno, the youngest person ever elected to the Santa Ana council and once a rising Latino political figure, slumped in his chair and bowed his head just before U.S. marshals handcuffed him and escorted him to a Los Angeles detention center.

U.S. District Judge Gary L. Taylor rejected Moreno's pleas to remain free until his sentencing after a grave warning issued Tuesday by Santa Ana Police Chief Paul M. Walters, who told the court that fellow council members feared the conviction would push Moreno "beyond the edge psychologically."

Walters testified that colleagues have become increasingly concerned about Moreno's behavior in recent months--so much so that they requested that an armed guard be stationed at the council chambers for protection if Moreno remained free on bail.

The six-man, six-woman jury deliberated nearly two days before returning guilty verdicts on all charges against Moreno, who was accused of taking at least $31,000 in illegal campaign contributions.

Jurors said their deliberations went smoothly, with members of the panel quickly agreeing that Moreno broke the law and should be punished.

"It was not a decision that was taken lightly. But I felt we came to the only decision we could," said Caroline Cosgrove, a Cal State Fullerton employee who lives in Placentia. "The prosecution gave us a lot of evidence, which they backed up."

The three-week trial turned largely on the testimony of an FBI informant who recorded himself on audio and video tape giving Moreno thick, cash-laden envelopes. In one grainy black and white tape, a jubilant Moreno high-fived the informant after being given $2,500.

Prosecutors said that the "high-five" recording, which jurors asked to view during deliberations, was pivotal in proving that Moreno eagerly pursued the plan.

"That high-five captured the spirit of Moreno. He was glad to be there. It was part of business as usual," said Assistant U.S. Atty. John Hueston.

Moreno, who faces up to nine years in prison, declined to comment, but his attorney said the verdict is an unwarranted blemish on the record of a loyal public servant.

"It's a very sad day for Mr. Moreno and his family," said attorney Dean Steward. "He's been a public servant since 1992, and he's practically a lifelong Santa Ana resident. He was heard on one of the tapes talking about his love for the city--and I don't think anybody disputes that."

During the trial, the councilman defiantly took the witness stand, arguing that he was a victim of entrapment by overzealous FBI agents. Moreno said he only accepted the money because he was afraid the FBI informant would "destroy" him.

But one juror, a 65-year-old Lake Forest mechanical engineer who asked not to be identified, said Moreno's testimony backfired.

"I think Moreno shouldn't have taken the witness stand," he said. "He was pushing for the 'he was threatened' angle. . . . The video completely negated the threat concept."

Still, supporters expressed anger at the verdict and said Santa Ana was losing an official who spoke for the poor of the city, many of them Latino.

"I just think it's a sad day for the Hispanic community," said Mike Estrada. "Ted Moreno is a good man and a good voice for Santa Ana residents. We will miss him."

Under state law, Moreno must now be stripped of his council member status. City officials on Tuesday suspended Moreno, meaning he will no longer receive his salary and his access to City Hall. He will be formally removed from office after the judge officially enters the conviction into the court record in December.

Stripped of Office Under State Law

Moreno was indicted in 1998 along with three of his political allies after a two-year federal investigation uncovered the alleged plot to take political control of the city. Moreno's allies--former councilman Tony Espinoza, and failed council candidates Roman Palacios and Hector Olivares--eventually pleaded guilty to lesser charges, leaving prosecutors to focus their case on Moreno, whom they called the scheme's mastermind.

He was charged with shaking down businessmen for donations to his campaign and those of his allies running in the 1996 council election. Prosecutors said Moreno wanted to head a majority voting bloc that would dramatically shift the city's political power structure.

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