Friday, November 22, 2002
Attorney Indicted in Sweeping Federal Extortion Probe Centered on Carson
By ROBERT GREENE, Staff Writer
Los Angeles attorney Robert Dennis Pryce Jr. was arrested yesterday on federal bribery, extortion and kickback charges in a probe centering on the City of Carson and a $60 million trash hauling contract.
U.S. Attorney Debra Yang called Pryce the “bagman” in a scheme to bribe Carson officials to award the lucrative 10-year trash deal to Browning Ferris Industries, Inc.
Yang said a voting majority on the Carson city council used Pryce to solicit a bribe from BFI and later to deliver payments to the elected officials.
Also charged were one former and two current City of Carson elected officials, including the top aide to Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry; two ex-BFI employees, an official from another trash firm and a political consultant.
Pryce, 52, a Chapter Seven bankruptcy trustee and a partner in the downtown firm of Pryce Parker Hill, was also accused of using his position to direct money from the sale of properties in bankruptcy estates to his daughter, who then allegedly returned much of the money to him.
Pryce is one of 47 lawyers and accountants on the bankruptcy trustee panel for the Central District of California. Panelists are appointed to supervise bankruptcy estates and the sale of assets.
Indictment a First
United States Trustee Maureen A. Tighe said it was the first time a bankruptcy trustee from the district had been indicted.
“[T]he allegations in the indictment, if proven, would constitute one of the most egregious frauds committed on the bankruptcy system in this district’s history,” Tighe said.
Pryce, whose firm is located at 660 N. Figueroa, could not be reached for comment.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office described him as a Tarzana lawyer.
Yang called the trash-hauling contract a “once-in-10-year opportunity” for city officials to line their pockets.
The indictment alleges that early last year Carson Mayor Daryl Sweeney, who serves as chief of staff to Perry, the Ninth District Los Angeles city councilwoman, tried to recruit vice mayor Raunda Frank to join the scheme to get money in the awarding of a trash hauling deal.
Completing the three-member Carson council majority was councilman Manuel Ontal, who also was charged and pled guilty to taking a bribe for voting for a bus service contract.
Ontal’s cooperation was cited yesterday as a major break in the case. Assistant U.S. Attorney John Hueston, who is chief of the Santa Ana office and lead prosecutor on the Carson case, said Ontal “claimed that he had had enough with the city.”
Ex-LAPD officer Garland Hardeman, a former Inglewood elected official who now works as a political consultant, allegedly contacted another waste hauling firm on behalf of the Carson officials to solicit bribes. Pryce is said to have carried the offer to BFI. In January of this year, Pryce allegedly delivered $10,000 from BFI to Sweeney and Ontal and $5,000 to Frank, with additional payments to follow monthly.
The Carson council voted Feb. 19 to approve the contract with BFI, which was the high bidder on the contract.
The council reversed its vote in April and rescinded the contract on a 3-2 vote before any payments were made to BFI. The firm was not charged after they offered to cooperate in the probe, Yang said.
Hueston noted that the cooperation followed a search of company premises in April.
BFI is consistently named among the top purchasers of lobbying services in Los Angeles. The two charged officials, Douglas Allyn Moore and David Duane Robinson, are no longer with the company.
Perry said yesterday she retains her confidence in Sweeney, but said it was prudent to put him on administrative leave under the circumstances.
“By putting him on leave I do not judge the situation but know that it is the appropriate action to take and will enable my office to be fully operational without distraction,” Perry said.
In a related matter, former Carson Mayor Agapito Diaz “Pete” Fajardo was arrested yesterday after being indicted on federal corruption charges for allegedly offering votes in exchange for more than $100,000 in bribes.
Federal officials said Fajardo extorted about $50,000 from the owner of the El Camino Village apartments. The complex owner was seeking financial assistance from the city to continue making half of the units available to low income seniors.
Fajardo was also charged with trying to extort $70,000 from an engineering company that wanted to construct a bridge over a freeway.
He was arrested by agents of the FBI and the Internal Revenue Service.
In addition to the Carson charges, Pryce was charged with defrauding the bankruptcy court and the U.S. trustee by arranging with real estate agent Nelson Shelton to hire his daughter, teacher Kelly Walecki.
Pryce then allegedly got the bankruptcy court to approve the use of Shelton to sell properties in bankruptcy estates. Shelton would sell the properties and pay half the commissions to Walecki, who did not do any work and was not a licensed agent or broker.
Beginning in May 1999, Shelton allegedly paid more than $310,000 in commissions to Walecki, who then allegedly gave $130,000 to her father.
Pryce also is charged with taking kickbacks from a construction company after he hired the firm to do repairs on various properties in bankruptcy estates.
Pryce was indicted on nine counts of “honest services” mail fraud, nine counts of bankruptcy fraud, four counts of making false statements to the bankruptcy court, and 10 counts of money laundering.
Yang said it was unusual to be able to catch not just the corrupt officials, but also the alleged “middle men” and “conduits” like Pryce.
“These corrupt politicians cast a pall over the good work done by the honest officials in the City of Carson and the honest elected officials everywhere,” Yang said at a morning news conference.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company