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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Corruption in City Hall

The Crooked Reign of “King” Albert

Most of the corrupt politicians we investigate illegally peddle favors—the proverbial “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” kind, usually with money passed under the table to fully satisfy the itch.

Then there’s Albert Robles.

“He was so corrupt, he basically put an entire city under his thumb,” says Los Angeles Special Agent David Smith, who led the case for the FBI.

Robles is now serving a 10-year sentence for his 30 fraud and corruption-related crimes while treasurer of South Gate, California—a largely industrial community about 12 miles outside downtown Los Angles. The city is run by a popularly elected five-member city council, which in turn names the Mayor and Vice-Mayor.

Once elected city treasurer in 1997, Robles’ seemed determined to rule the city—purely to his own benefit. He even proclaimed himself “King of South Gate”…and referred to the city as his “fiefdom.”

His corrupt tactics included:

■Using the city’s treasury as his “private piggy bank for himself, his family, and his friends” (according to acting U.S. Attorney George Cardona), costing South Gate more than $35 million and bringing it to the verge of bankruptcy;
■Firing city hall employees at will, replacing them with supporters who had little experience;
■Recruiting and bankrolling unqualified local supporters for city council until he controlled the council; and
■Threatening anyone who stood in his way (suspiciously, one of his adversaries on the city council was shot in the head).

For the love of money. Robles and his corrupt cronies cooked up several schemes to line their own pockets. In one, Robles coerced businesses to hire a financial consultant named Edward Espinoza in order to win various city contracts, including for senior housing and sewer rehabilitation projects.

As part of this plan, Robles and Espinoza set up a shell corporation that raked in some $2.4 million—more than $1.4 million of which went straight into Robles’ pockets. He used part of the money to buy a $165,000 beach condo in Baja for his mother; he also forked over $55,000 for “platinum membership” in a motivational group.

In another scheme, Robles steered a $48 million refuse and recycling contract to a company in exchange for more than $30,000 in gifts and campaign contributions.

Making the case. Four agents in our L.A. office and one IRS agent worked to gather the proof—conducting dozens of interviews, poring over financial records, and examining information from seized computers. “We opened the case in June 2000…and spent many months getting everything together to show the length and breadth of Robles’ corruption,” says Smith.

In the end. The citizens of South Gate ultimately voted Robles and his cronies out of office (but not before he racked up huge legal bills at the city’s expense), and he was convicted at trial in July 2005. Two of his business associates—including Espinoza—also went to prison.

It’s a good case in point why we’ve made rooting out public corruption our fourth highest priority—and our top criminal one. We’ve helped convict more than 1,000 federal, state, and local government officials in the last two years alone.

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