Jurors will hold their first full day of deliberations Thursday in the trial of a former congressional aide accused of threatening to close down an illegal Compton medical marijuana dispensary — even though he lacked the authority to do so — unless the owner handed over a $5,000 bribe.
Michael Kimbrew, 44, of Carson, could face up to 18 years behind bars if convicted of one federal count each of attempted extortion and bribery of a public official.
After less than a day and a half of testimony, the prosecution and defense made their closing arguments Wednesday, after which U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner sent jurors behind closed doors at the Roybal Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles to weigh the evidence.
Kimbrew was working as an aide to then-Rep. Janice Hahn out of Compton City Hall in March 2015 when he allegedly told the pot shop’s owners — and later, an undercover FBI agent posing as one of the owners in recorded conversations — that the shop would be shut down by the city unless he was paid. The defense alleges that the $5,000 in cash was handed over not as a bribe but as a token of friendship.
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 summation. “There is no reasonable doubt that the defendant is guilty.”
Jurors watched a video recording of Kimbrew meeting with the undercover FBI agent and discussing the alleged $5,000 bribe, which the agent had hidden in a restaurant menu and passed to the defendant.
Defense attorney Kim Savo did not deny her client took the money, arguing that taking a “gratuity” did not amount to a felony.
“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.”
The government alleges that Kimbrew abused his position as a public employee by threatening to shake down the owners of Green Legends, a now- defunct pot store on Long Beach Boulevard.
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.
Dotson alleged that Kimbrew falsely claimed to work for the city of Compton but actually had no authority over marijuana dispensaries, which were illegal in the city at the time.
The defense told the jury that Kimbrew was not performing an “official act” when he met with Green Legend owners, and 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, the attorney maintained.
“Mr. Kimbrew was acting shady, yes, he was,” Savo said in her closing argument. “But that’s not a federal crime.”
Savo told the panel that her client cannot be convicted since the undercover agent “could not reasonably have believed” Kimbrew’s claim that he had the authority to keep the shop open.
In her rebuttal, Dotson called Savo’s defense arguments “a distraction, an effort to get you to look away from the evidence.”
The defendant “was caught red-handed threatening to shut down a business if he’s not paid off,” she said.
The illegal dispensary was shut down by the city of Compton several months after the events described.
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.
—City News Service