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Attorney Guilty of Corruption in Carson Bribery Case

Robert Pryce Jr. enters a plea to 49 counts, many related to the awarding of a $60-million garbage contract. Nine others have pleaded guilty.

August 15, 2003|David Rosenzweig | Times Staff Writer

A Los Angeles lawyer pleaded guilty Thursday to federal charges that he arranged and funneled bribe payments from representatives of a nationwide garbage hauling company to Carson City Council members in exchange for their votes on a $60-million trash contract.

Robert Dennis Pryce Jr., 53, also entered guilty pleas to allegations that he accepted kickbacks from a real estate broker and a contractor while serving as a court-appointed bankruptcy trustee assigned to liquidate debtors' assets.

Pryce faces 6 1/2 to 8 years in prison and will be required to pay about $600,000 in restitution under terms of a plea agreement reached with prosecutors. He remains free on bail pending sentencing Oct. 27.

A partner in a downtown law firm, Pryce was the last of 10 defendants to plead guilty in the Carson corruption case.

The federal investigation is continuing, however. Building on information gathered during the Carson probe, FBI agents two weeks ago arrested the president and a board member of the West Basin Municipal Water District on charges of extorting kickbacks from contractors. The district provides water to nearly 1 million residents in southwestern Los Angeles County.

Pryce and his lawyer declined to talk to reporters as they left the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Percy Anderson, where he pleaded guilty to 49 criminal counts that included extortion, bribery, mail fraud, bankruptcy fraud, money laundering and making false statements to government agencies.

In the Carson case, Pryce admitted negotiating a deal in which he, former Carson Mayor Daryl W. Sweeney and former City Council members Raunda Frank and Manuel Ontal were to share a $585,000 bribe from Browning Ferris Industries in return for awarding the company an exclusive, 10-year city garbage contract. The city rescinded the deal after indictments were returned last year.

Sweeney, Frank and Ontal, who have pleaded guilty in the case, were expected to testify against Pryce at his trial next month.

Prosecutors also intended to introduce secretly recorded conversations between Pryce and Ontal about the bribery scheme. While the FBI investigation was in its early stages in 2000, Ontal walked into the U.S. attorney's office and confessed that he and his colleagues and been taking bribes from an assortment of businesses.

Ontal agreed to cooperate, and he wore a concealed recording device during meetings at which the pending garbage contract was discussed.

Sweeney, who has admitted masterminding the cash-for-contracts scheme, decided to use a middleman through whom the payoffs could be funneled disguised as consulting fees. He chose Pryce, his personal lawyer.

Pryce's first assignment was Waste Management, the nation's largest trash hauler, which held the city's soon-to-expire contract. Late in 2001, he wrote the company asking for $600,000 for his services as a "lobbyist" to ensure renewal of the contract. Waste Management ultimately turned down the proposal.

Sweeney then turned to Browning Ferris Industries, the high bidder for the new contract. BFI executives agreed to pay $585,000, disguised as a consulting fee to Pryce, in return for the contract. The money was to be paid in installments and shared by Sweeney, Frank, Ontal and Pryce.

Two BFI representatives accused of paying the initial installments have pleaded guilty to bribery and are awaiting sentencing. No other company officials were charged. The U.S. attorney's office said that the firm, a subsidiary of Allied Waste of Scottsdale, Ariz., cooperated with authorities during the investigation.

In the separate bankruptcy kickback case, Pryce admitted negotiating a deal with Nelson Shelton and Associates, a Beverly Hills real estate firm, to sell properties under his control as a U.S. bankruptcy trustee.

As part of the arrangement, prosecutors said, Shelton agreed to "hire" Pryce's daughter, Kelly Walecki, a public-school teacher, and pay her half of its commissions even though she would not do any work.

From 1999 to 2002, prosecutors said, Shelton paid Walecki more than $310,000 in commissions. She gave her father more than $130,000 of that.

Walecki pleaded guilty in the case earlier this year and agreed to cooperate with authorities, raising the likelihood that she would testify against her father at his trial on those charges later this year.

Pryce also admitted taking $170,000 in kickbacks from Scorza and Sons Construction Services in exchange for hiring the Gardena firm to work at various properties he managed as a bankruptcy trustee.

Pryce also required Scorza and Sons to work for free at his homes and the homes of his mother and sister, according to prosecutors.

Shelton and Scorza and Sons were not charged in the case.

--- UNPUBLISHED NOTE ---

See correction that ran July 8, 2004, concerning a June 10, 2004 story about Manuel Ontal and Daryl Sweeney. This correction clarifies the facts about this case.

--- END NOTE ---

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