Men in Black: After 20 years, FBI raid recalled

Late one night 20 years ago, while the Assembly was in session and the Senate had just closed up shop, several dozen strange men quietly entered the Capitol. Dressed in black suits and bearing search warrants, 30 FBI agents descended upon the Capitol, raided the offices of four legislators, and blew open one of the most sweeping public corruption scandals in the state's history.

This Sunday marks the 20th anniversary of the FBI's Capitol raid, the climax of a two-year "sting" investigation to uncover corruption in the California Legislature, in which FBI agents posed as businessmen looking for favors from legislators. The agents set up shop at 11th and K, above what is now the Pyramid Alehouse.

"I knew there was something funny about those guys," one neighbor said at the time. "They never let anybody in to clean their room."

The investigation was informally dubbed "Shrimpscam" by reporters because the agents purported to represent a shrimp-processing company. Later, the Los Angeles Times reported that the real name of the investigation was "Brispec," for "Bribery Special Interest."

The night of the raid, chief Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Tony Beard had already gone home for the evening after a long day on the floor.

"I got a phone call from the FBI around 9:30 p.m. We had just gotten out of session… I had gone home and I was opening up a can of chili for dinner, and a friend of mine at the FBI called me and said, ‘Where are you?'"

"When he said that, I kind of knew without his saying it that they had warrants."

The FBI agents were indeed there to serve warrants to search documents and records in the offices of four state legislators: Assembly Republican Leader Pat Nolan of Glendale, Sen. Joseph B. Montoya (D-Whittier), Assemblywoman Gwen Moore (D-Los Angeles) and Assemblyman Frank Hill (R-Whittier).

The raid on the Capitol offices was the result of an undercover probe in which he FBI set up a network of implausible dummy companies (such as the shrimp-processing company in West Sacramento that gave the scandal its moniker) to attempt to catch corrupt politicians accepting bribes. The companies wrote special-interest legislation that would benefit the companies. Agents then went undercover as sleazy businessmen to attempt to buy the legislators' support for the bills.

And they succeeded. Two of the fake bills made it all the way through the Legislature, and they might have become law if Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, who had been tipped off about the sting by an FBI agent in 1986, had not vetoed them.
Lawmakers and their staffers were still on the Assembly floor when the agents began the late-night search. Word spread quickly throughout the Capitol building.

"The word on the floor was, ‘The FBI's here. They're raiding Pat Nolan's office,'" said Richard Steffen, former aide to Jackie Speier, who was on the Assembly floor at the time of the raid. Steffen rushed towards Nolan's office.

"The only thing remarkable [about the agents] is how they were dressed. Two guys in black business suits, with those thick, black-soled shoes that nobody likes – Thom McAn specials – were standing there. They were tall, really tall, all in black."
News of the raid spread like wildfire throughout the Capitol building. Steffen recalls that he heard cries of "'The FBI's here! It's a raid! It's a raid!"

The members were not in their offices at the time of the raid, but Beard was, and remained there with the FBI agents late into the next morning.

"Nobody was in their offices at the time. I made the notifications that I would normally make in any operation involving the Legislature. I was there most of the night, the FBI was there most of the night. It was a long night. It was a long week, actually."
The four legislators whose offices were raided, and Paul Carpenter, a member of the state Board of Equalization, had been targets of the FBI undercover work for close to two years. Members and their aides had been caught accepting bribes in the form of campaign contributions and speaking fees for which no speech was given. Agents even attempted to snag Assembly Speaker Willie Brown by shoving $1,000 dollars in cash under his office door. A Brown aide returned the money.

Ironically, it was Nolan who earlier had approached the FBI about investigating Brown, a powerful and flamboyant politician who was at the top of most Republicans' political hit lists. As it turned out, Nolan was later tried and convicted of corruption charges; Brown emerged unscathed. Nolan now is a ranking official in Prison Fellowship, a national prison-reform group founded by Chuck Colson, a Richard Nixon aide who went to prison for crimes he committed during the Watergate scandals.

Montoya was videotaped accepting money from a federal agent. When the agent told him that Carpenter had gotten several times as much for their cooperation, Montoya lamented that he should have held out for more.

John Shahabian, a legislative staffer who agreed to wear recording equipment after being "stung" himself, became notorious immediately after the raid when it became public that he had been a double agent for the FBI. From 1986 until the 1988 raid, Shahabian wore audio and video recording equipment and pretended to be co-owner of Peachstate Capital West Ltd., a suspicious venture capital company set up by the FBI.

Shahabian himself received immunity from prosecution in return for his undercover work. Currently, he owns Coffee Works in Sacramento.
Ultimately, five state elected officials were snagged in the raid, and served prison time. Nolan was forced to step down as the Assembly GOP leader immediately following the raid, and spent 25 months in federal prison. After leaving prison, he became Vice President of Justice Fellowship, which works to reform the prison and justice systems.

Capitol community members agreed there was an atmosphere of corruption in the government at the time.

"The thing I recall is that the people who got nailed in the sting, everybody knew about them going in," says Bob Fairbanks, former Capitol bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. "Insiders had heard about them for years, and insiders talked about them."

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