Carson Mayor Daryl W. Sweeney pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiring to extort hundreds of thousands of dollars from waste haulers competing for a $60-million city contract and pledged to cooperate with federal prosecutors probing other political corruption schemes in Southern California.
Sweeney, 45, faces about 10 years in prison, which Asst. U.S. Atty. John Hueston said would set a record for a California public corruption case.
As part of his plea agreement, Sweeney agreed to resign immediately as mayor, a part-time post. He previously resigned as full-time chief of staff to Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry.
Hueston said that Sweeney is already cooperating with prosecutors and that "we hope he will help us develop new and different cases of political corruption" beyond Carson. Hueston declined to be more specific.
Sweeney, who remains free on bond pending sentencing in October, declined to answer reporters' questions after his court appearance but issued a written statement, saying: "I want to apologize to the good citizens of Carson who elected me and who placed their trust in me. I have failed you."
Sweeney became the ninth defendant, the second mayor and the fourth member of the City Council to plead guilty in the Carson corruption case. Pete Fajardo, who preceded Sweeney as mayor, previously admitted that he had extorted $50,000 from the owner of a low-income senior citizen housing project in return for approval of a city grant that would have lowered the owner's mortgage.
City Councilman Raunda Frank previously pleaded guilty to extortion in the waste-hauling scheme and Councilman Manuel Ontal to taking a bribe for supporting the extension of a bus-service contract. Both have resigned.
Federal prosecutors said they had been looking into tips about possible Carson corruption in 2000 when Ontal walked into their offices unbidden, confessed wrongdoing and agreed to cooperate in nabbing others. Ontal subsequently wore a secret recording device for meetings with Sweeney and others who were set to award the long-term, exclusive waste-hauling contract for the city of 90,000.
The largest garbage hauler in the country, Waste Management, had held the contract and was the low bidder for renewal. But Sweeney admitted that he and his cohorts decided to make the company pay for their votes, according to his plea agreement filed in court.
Sweeney decided to use a middleman through whom the payoffs would be funneled, the plea agreement said.
First, he chose former Inglewood City Councilman Garland Hardeman, who offered his services to Waste Management as a "political consultant," the plea agreement said.
But Sweeney soon grew impatient with Hardeman, who was unable to consummate a deal. Hardeman has since pleaded guilty to bribery.
Sweeney jettisoned him for his personal lawyer, Robert Dennis Pryce Jr., who then wrote Waste Management offering his services as a lobbyist for $600,000.
Sweeney explained to Ontal on tape why he switched middlemen, saying he needed "somebody in place ... that I can trust and that is used to dealing ... with big, big, big dollars."
But Waste Management ultimately refused to pay Pryce.
Sweeney then turned to one of Waste Management's biggest competitors, Browning Ferris Industries, which had been the high bidder for the Carson contract.
BFI officials agreed to pay $585,000, disguised as a fee to Pryce, in exchange for votes from Sweeney, Ontal and Frank, the plea agreement said.
They constituted a majority of the five-member City Council on which Sweeney had served since 1997.
He became mayor in 2001.
Sweeney told the government that the money would be paid in $15,000 installments. Each council member would ultimately receive $100,000. Pryce would keep the rest -- for himself and for taxes.
BFI was awarded the 10-year contract early last year. It has since been rescinded.
Two BFI executives, who were charged with making the initial payoffs, have pleaded guilty to bribery and are awaiting sentencing.
Pryce, the lone remaining defendant in the case, is scheduled to go on trial Sept. 2. Sweeney is expected to be a key witness against him.
Pryce is also charged with soliciting kickbacks on real estate sales while serving as a trustee for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
All told, Sweeney pleaded guilty to 15 criminal counts, including conspiracy to commit extortion under color of authority, bribery, money laundering and mail fraud.
A number of Carson community activists attended the hour-long change of plea hearing before U.S. Dist. Judge Percy Anderson.
Planning Commission member Rita Boggs, a Sweeney opponent, said afterward: "I think it's a big step for restoring integrity to Carson's city government."
Community activist Robert Lesley, a retired Los Angeles port police officer, wondered whether Sweeney had engaged in other corrupt acts that had yet to come to light.
Cliff Cannon, a longtime Planning Commission member who was reappointed by Sweeney, said: "It's a sad day for Carson. It's a terrible loss. But I also think we have very resilient citizens of Carson who will be rebound."
--- 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.
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