Wednesday, March 7, 2018

By Fred Shuster

LOS ANGELES—A former congressional staffer was found guilty Thursday of federal extortion and bribery charges for taking $5,000 with bogus promises of helping to prevent the closure of an illegal Compton marijuana dispensary.

Michael Kimbrew, 44, of Carson, faces up to 18 years behind bars for his conviction on one federal count each of attempted extortion and bribery of a public official. U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner set June 4 for sentencing in downtown Los Angeles.

After about six hours of deliberations, jurors found that Kimbrew approached an employee of the marijuana shop in March 2015, told him the dispensary was violating the law, and said the shop would be shut down within a week unless the owners reached an "agreement" with him.

Evidence presented during two days of testimony showed that Kimbrew subsequently met with the dispensary's owners inside Compton City Hall. Falsely claiming to be working with the FBI, Kimbrew said he could "make things happen" by ensuring the illegal pot store had the appropriate permits in exchange for $5,000.

Jurors watched a video recording of Kimbrew meeting with an undercover FBI agent and discussing the $5,000 bribe, which the agent had hidden in a restaurant menu and passed to the defendant during a second meeting.

Kimbrew was working as an aide to then-Rep. Janice Hahn out of Compton City Hall when he first approached the owners of Green Legends, a now- defunct pot dispensary on Long Beach Boulevard. The defendant did not take the stand in his defense.

Kimbrew "left a pretty damning trail ... he attempted to extort a business in Compton and took a $5,000 bribe," Assistant U.S. Attorney Lindsey Greer Dotson told jurors in her closing argument Wednesday. "There is no reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty."

Defense attorney Kim Savo did not deny her client took the money, arguing that it was a "gratuity" out of friendship and not a bribe.

"There's a difference between accepting a gratuity that you shouldn't be accepting and (committing) a federal crime," Savo said. "There's no extortion here."

Prosecution witness Mario Salazar, a former Green Legends employee, testified that Kimbrew came to the shop to discuss a "compliance issue," asking to see permits showing the store -- which was operating illegally in Compton -- was in accordance with city rules. Salazar told the jury that during two visits a few weeks apart, Kimbrew indicated he was looking for some kind of "arrangement" with the owners or "he was going to have the business shut down" by the end of the week.

Kimbrew actually had no authority over marijuana stores, which were illegal in the city at the time, prosecutors said.

The defense unsuccessfully argued that Kimbrew only took the cash when the undercover agent insisted the money was in exchange for introductions to other dispensary owners and to ensure a "good relationship" -- which was unethical but not illegal, Savo maintained.

"Mr. Kimbrew was acting shady," Savo said in her summation. "But that's not a federal crime."

The illegal dispensary was shut down by the city several months after the events described during the trial.

A spokeswoman for Hahn, who is now a Los Angeles County supervisor, has said that Kimbrew worked for the former congresswoman for about a year and was fired in early 2016.

Kimbrew is the son of former Compton Unified School District board member Basil Kimbrew, who pleaded no contest in 2005 to using a school district credit card to pay for a party.