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Corruption Arrests in Carson

Four present and former City Council members are accused of extorting bribes. Federal indictments allege widespread abuses.

November 22, 2002|Ted Rohrlich | Times Staff Writer

Federal agents unveiled evidence Thursday of widespread corruption in Carson, charging four present and former City Council members with extorting bribes totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars from waste haulers and other firms seeking municipal business.

Prosecutors portrayed a majority voting bloc on the five-member City Council as corrupt, more interested in lining its own pockets than in shopping for high-quality public services at the best price. All, along with two middlemen and three waste-hauling executives also charged in the case, face the possibility of 10 years in prison if convicted.

Carson City Councilman and Mayor Daryl Sweeney and former Mayor Pete Fajardo were arrested and charged with extorting money from businesses over the last three years.

Charged with related crimes were City Councilwoman Raunda Frank and former City Councilman Manny Ontal. Until Ontal resigned his seat in April, he, Frank and Sweeney constituted the council majority that prosecutors allege was for sale.

Unbeknown to his colleagues, Ontal was working as an undercover operative for federal investigators.

He had walked into the U.S. attorney's office in Santa Ana with a lawyer in September 2000 and proclaimed that he was tired of the corruption, said the lead prosecutor in the case, Assistant U.S. Atty. John Hueston. Ontal confessed his own corrupt acts, Hueston said, and agreed to expose others. Ontal then secretly taped conversations relating to the award of a lucrative waste-hauling contract. Ontal has agreed to plead guilty to accepting an earlier, unrelated $5,000 bribe.

Sweeney, 45, the part-time mayor who serves as chief of staff for Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry, was portrayed in a grand jury indictment as the ringleader. He told Ontal on tape, prosecutors said, that he saw the award of the multiyear garbage contract as a "long-term opportunity" for council members to collect six-figure supplements to their incomes.

He also said he looked to other city contracts for future payoffs. Seeking to assure Ontal that each of the conspirators would get his fair share, Sweeney said: "I think there are enough things coming down the pike where, if all of them pop, everybody's going to be set," prosecutors related in court filings.

Sweeney's lawyer, John Sweeney, a distant relative, said, "The allegations in the indictment are shocking, and they are untrue."

Sweeney's employer, Perry, is "neither a subject nor a target" of what lead prosecutor Hueston described as a continuing, wide-ranging investigation into possible corruption in other cities. Perry said Sweeney was put on unpaid leave after his arrest.

Sweeney's personal lawyer, Robert Dennis Pryce Jr., 52, of Tarzana, was charged with helping to arrange some of the bribes. His lawyer, Michael Proctor, said Thursday that Pryce looked forward to telling his side of the story and expects to be exonerated.

Former Inglewood city councilman and former Los Angeles Police Officer Garland Hardeman, 46, was charged with attempting to arrange bribes for the accused Carson council members. He has agreed to plead guilty, court records show.

Pryce and Hardeman offered their services to waste-hauling firms as consultants who could help them secure city contracts.

Waste Management, the country's largest waste hauler, refused to retain either man and lost out, although, the government said, it was low bidder for a 10-year contract, worth tens of millions of dollars, to haul commercial waste.

Two executives with Browning Ferris Industries, a subsidiary of the nation's second-largest waste hauler, Allied Waste Industries, were charged with agreeing to pay nearly $600,000 in bribes through Pryce late last year.

In return, Sweeney, Frank and Ontal voted earlier this year to award BFI the contract, although the firm submitted the high bid, prosecutors said. BFI later fired the executives who allegedly agreed to the bribe, and was not charged. U.S. Atty. Debra Yang said that is because the firm has cooperated with federal investigators.

Michael Aloyan, president of a relatively small competitor, Compton-based Hub City Solid Waste, offered to pay the largest bribe in the case -- $1.5 million to Ontal, prosecutors said. Aloyan, who later made a token payment of $10,000, court documents show, has agreed to plead guilty and cooperate with authorities.

Lead prosecutor Hueston said Aloyan "is attempting to cooperate" by providing information "beyond the Carson schemes." Hueston refused to be more specific. Aloyan was an admitted middleman in a separate bribery scandal involving former Compton officials a decade ago.

Earlier this year, The Times reported claims by Waste Management and another firm, CalMet Services, that Aloyan had promised to deliver them a lucrative Compton city garbage contract if the firms paid him $1 million. After they refused, the Compton City Council awarded the contract to Aloyan.

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