06:56 AM PDT on Tuesday, April 19, 2011

By JOHN ASBURY
The Press-Enterprise

LOS ANGELES – Former Soboba Tribal Chairman Robert “Bobby” Salgado was sentenced Monday to 41 months in federal prison for accepting nearly $875,000 in kickbacks from vendors in exchange for giving them contracts on the reservation and at the Soboba Casino.

Salgado, 68, faced up to 13 years in prison under an agreement in which he pleaded guilty to bribery and filing a false tax return. The judge agreed to a lesser sentence after prosecutors requested he serve five years and Salgado’s defense attorney asked for probation.

He appeared in a federal courtroom in Los Angeles in a black pinstripe suit and walking with a cane, surrounded by about dozen friends and relatives.

“I’ve apologized to my people. I’ve apologized to my family. And I apologize to the court,” Salgado said.

He said he also apologized to his 90-year-old father, the oldest member of the tribe, who has stage 4 prostate cancer.

“He said, ‘Son, you made a mistake. Now you have to answer like a warrior,’ ” Salgado said. “So I’m here, a warrior of my tribe ready to accept my punishment today.”

He will surrender by June 20 to U.S. marshals to begin serving time. U.S. Central District Judge Dean Pregerson said he would recommend Salgado be placed at the Terminal Island federal prison in Long Beach, where he can receive medical care for issues related to his weight and conditions including congestive heart failure, diabetes and cysts that make it difficult for him to walk.

In explaining the lesser sentence, Pregerson said although Salgado needed to be held accountable for his corruption as a public official, the effect of his crimes on the nearly 300 members of the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians did not rise to the level of public corruption committed against entire cities and communities.

“The scope is not as broad for what appears to be a big extended family,” Pregerson said. “Official corruption is bad on any level. It’s corrosive. But the scope compared to a community of millions is not the same.”

VIOLATED TRUST

A grand jury indicted Salgado on 36 felony charges in 2009, including 29 counts of bribery and seven of conspiracy and tax fraud, following an FBI investigation that began when another tribal member reported Salgado.

Investigators discovered that since 1997, Salgado had been forcing vendors to offer bribes and pay his personal bills in order to keep contracts with the Soboba tribe and its casino and reservation near San Jacinto.

“Mr. Salgado was such an incredible authority that what he wanted, happened. Period,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jill Feeney said during the sentencing.

The contracts involved in the bribery scheme included improvements at the casino and adding to the tribe’s real estate holdings. For example, the investigation found that a real estate broker who helped the tribe purchase the Country Club at Soboba Springs for $12.5 million paid Salgado a share of his commissions totaling $486,152.

The judge said that because of the bribery, the tribe ultimately paid more for the contracts, because Salgado was choosing his preferred vendors and not the lowest bidders.

Salgado also was charged with not reporting the income he received through bribes on his federal tax returns. For that, he was ordered to repay $226,187 to the Internal Revenue Service.

Salgado pleaded guilty in October, admitting to the charges in exchange for having all but two dismissed.

Stemming from the investigation, five vendors were indicted for bribery, conspiracy and tax fraud. John Culton, Armen Zennedjian, Yakovich, Keith Reilly and Abbas Shilleh each pleaded guilty.

Shortly after the indictment, tribal leaders placed Salgado on leave and stripped him of his title. A new chairman was elected in spring 2010.

“The position of tribal chairman, like any other public office, is not the property of the holder, but rather is a position of trust bestowed by voters, in this case members of the Soboba band,” the U.S. attorney’s office stated in its sentencing brief. “It is time for (Salgado) to admit that he abused that position of trust, that he did not act in the best interest of his tribe members, and that he deserves significant punishment for his actions.”

POWERFUL LEADER

In agreeing to a less than maximum sentence, prosecutors cited Salgado’s contributions to the tribe, health problems that will reduce his lifespan, and the fact that he is not likely to recommit the crimes.

Salgado led the Soboba tribe on and off since 1976. He was a powerful yet controversial figure who had connections with Inland politicians and pushed forward federal legislation to secure the tribe’s water rights.

He drew scrutiny following a series of gunbattles on the reservations between tribal members and Riverside County sheriff’s deputies that killed three Soboba members in May 2008. Salgado tried to bar sheriff’s deputies from entering the reservation, but later relented.

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