By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
WEISS' BACKGROUND AND BUSINESS practices apparently caused little concern among Baca and his peers in the upper echelons of law enforcement, where Weiss and his loan program won a warm reception. The PRIDE Program's advisory board was stacked with heavy hitters: Baca; Dwight "Spike" Helmick, commissioner of the California Highway Patrol; Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona; Dr. Ted Hunt, president of the LAPD Police Protective League (PPL); Sam Cabral, president of the Washington, D.C.based International Union of Police Associations.
Weiss gained some degree of credibility in these circles through his ties to police booster organizations, pro-cop charitable groups and department hangers-on.
His biggest boost in this regard came through his relationship with Arthur Kassel, a wealthy, well-connected politico, onetime owner of the Beverly Hills Gun Club and, more recently, a paid consultant for the Richland Group. "My whole life has been helping policemen and their families," as Kassel described himself in an interview with the Weekly.
Kassel is a board member of the LAPD Historical Society, which hosts the annual Jack Webb Awards dinner, a black-tie soiree and one of the top engagements on the law-enforcement social calendar. In October 1998, Robert Weiss was named one of five people honored with the Jack Webb Award -- which is given for being "active in community service" and "supporters of law enforcement." At the time, Weiss was virtually unknown in law-enforcement circles. One longtime department insider comments that he never heard of Weiss before watching him stride up to the dais to accept the award. According to the source, Weiss used his acceptance speech to pitch the PRIDE Program.
LAPD Captain Greg Meyers, who produced this year's Jack Webb Awards, says it was Arthur Kassel who introduced Weiss to the board and arranged for the mortgage lender to receive the award. In the months prior to the awards dinner, Meyers says, Weiss persuaded the Historical Society to endorse the PRIDE Program and pledged to donate $15 to the society's coffers every time the Richland Group closed a loan. "It's a new program," Meyers says. "If it takes off, this could be very lucrative for us." Meyers acknowledges that last June he himself took advantage of the PRIDE Program's benefits and refinanced the loan on his home.
As a paid consultant for Richland, Kassel claims, he came up with the PRIDE Program's main sales hook: a free life-insurance policy for cops, so their mortgages would be paid off should something happen to them.
Kassel says he also made key introductions for the entrepreneur. His Rolodex led Weiss to the PPL's Ted Hunt, who in turn introduced Weiss to Cabral. And on the night of the 1998 Jack Webb Awards, he introduced Weiss to Lee Baca, who in turn vouched for Weiss to both Spike Helmick and Mike Carona.
"It's a small fraternity," Kassel says.
When contacted by the Weekly, one member of the fraternity credited Lee Baca's recommendation -- his "innovative leadership" on the issue, one might say -- as an important factor in deciding to endorse the product.
"I don't know anything about [the Richland Group's] business practices, personally," Helmick said. But after checking with Baca and others, "I felt very comfortable it was a good organization." As to his decision to join the PRIDE board, Helmick said simply, "Lee Baca suggested it to me."
Helmick subsequently got a PRIDE loan to refinance his own home. "That's how I know it works very well," Helmick said.
Baca's good friend Mike Carona also got himself a loan from Weiss, and endorsed the company on the Richland Group's Web site. "My wife and I are delighted with our PRIDE loan and the exceptional service we received from the Richland Group," Carona gushed. (Carona did not return repeated calls from the Weekly.) For his part, Ted Hunt allows the Richland Group to prominently display on the site a picture of himself standing in front of a squad car, smiling.
It was all very cozy. Around the time Baca and Carona both got loans from Weiss, Weiss signed on as a sponsor of a $250-a-plate fund-raiser for Baca, hosted by Carona. On the weekend of the fund-raiser, according to a reliable observer, the three men spent the day tooling around on a yacht owned by another controversial police booster and campaign fund-raiser, Donald G. Haidl, whom Carona had recently appointed assistant sheriff in charge of his volunteer reserve program. A few weeks after the boat trip, Haidl was the subject of a lengthy Orange County Register exposé that detailed how, while chairman of Nationwide Auction Systems, he was the subject of three separate state investigations for allegedly skimming as much as $1 million in public money. The story also detailed allegations of "gunrunning to Mexico" and his involvement with an L.A. County Sheriff's deputy who was convicted of hiring a bounty hunter to shoot up his ex-girlfriend's house. Haidl dismissed the allegations as a "bunch of trash."
SINCE LAUNCHING THE PRIDE PROGRAM, Robert Weiss has tried to project a plain-vanilla corporate image. He now bills the Richland Group as a "national mortgage banker," one of the country's biggest independent brokers for blue-chip firms like Merrill Lynch Credit Corp. and Nationwide Lending. "Ninety percent of our business is making garden-variety loans," he said in one recent deposition. He now even denies making a loan to O.J. Simpson, saying to one deputy who recently pressed him on the matter that heã merely "referred" Simpson to another lender.