— The tow-truck magnate reputed to be the business brains behind Metabolife International, the diet-drug outfit that made hundreds of millions of dollars before its financial collapse, has finally been sentenced. William Robert Bradley, who pled guilty last year to income tax evasion, could have gotten at least 18 months in federal prison for his crimes but was instead rewarded with just 6 months behind bars plus two years' probation. In a presentencing memo filed this summer, prosecutors argued that Bradley's charitable activities, which his lawyers insisted should count in favor of leniency, were merely a front for his far-flung money-laundering activities. To assist his plea for mercy, Bradley rolled out some of the biggest guns of the local establishment.

First came Father Joe Carroll, often called upon by rich and powerful business types and politicos -- including former port commissioner David Malcolm and ex-San Diego city councilwoman Valerie Stallings -- to help them keep their prison time down after their convictions. Carroll advocated a "community service option" that would have kept Bradley, a big donor to Carroll's charities, out of jail entirely: "We would propose a sentence of Community Service of 2,000 hours to be served over a period of not more than 15 months. This will keep him on a tight schedule."

According to Carroll's letter, Bradley would have done his time at two rural properties owned by Father Joe's Villages. "Bob's daily duties will include: 1) Ranch chores -- feeding and caring of animals, cutting brush, cleaning out stalls and pens. 2) Assisting in retreats/camps -- preparing and serving meals and other tasks as assigned. 3) Providing tours of the ranches for possible donors. 4) Working with future construction crews."

Robert Watkins, owner of the R.J. Watkins executive recruiting firm and a member of the County Board of Education, sent his pro-Bradley pitch to federal judge Barry Moskowitz on official Office of Education stationery: "Your Honor, the bottom line here is after listening to your court proceedings it is hard for me to understand why a simple amended tax return couldn't suffice for what has taken place. His fines are excessive and punishment enough! How many of us sign our tax returns every year and may not realize that what our tax advisors tell us could put us in Bob's shoes? High-priced lawyers and tax accounting specialists make millions of dollars advising their clients on how to 'defer' taxes via structured loopholes and alike. Bob received that advice from the best and most experienced I'm sure. Did he understand it? Probably not, but 'to the best of his knowledge' he signed his returns like you and me!"

And there was this from William D. Lynch, on the board of the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, sponsor of this fall's vote on whether to move the airport to Miramar: "In my experience, Bob Bradley is a man of highest integrity, tireless dedication, gracious manner and professional demeanor. He is a thoughtful, caring and important leader in San Diego. In making your decision on sentencing, your Honor, please consider the character of Mr. Bradley and the magnitude of his gifts of time and treasure against the amount of his underpayment of taxes."

Bradley threw in a September 1999 letter he'd received from Herb Klein, then vice president and editor in chief of Copley newspapers, thanking him for attending a fund-raising dinner for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. "I enjoyed our lunch" was scrawled beneath Klein's signature. An August 2000 letter from Rose Romo of the MS Society thanked Bradley for his "vast involvement in our recent recognition dinner" honoring real estate mogul Malin Burnham.

A couple of old chums from the California Highway Patrol also chimed in. "On numerous occasions while I was a member of the CHP I had cause to work closely with Bob's father who owned a tow company contracted to tow for our department," wrote Roger Matthews to Moskowitz. "During this time (1970s) Bob was just one of the tow truck drivers learning the business in preparation to take over upon his father's retirement." He added: "Sir, I don't make this statement lightly when I inform you that Bob is as close to me as any of my brothers."

Another former cop, Kenneth J. Ahacic, had this to say: "I had knowledge about Bob's towing business when I was employed by the CHP and Bradley's Towing had the reputation to be an excellent, responsive and professional company. In 1990, I met Bob through a couple of mutual friends and began to associate with him on a personal basis. Our friendship developed to the degree that he was one of the two best men at my wedding." San Diego mayor Jerry Sanders, the former police chief who was once Bradley's partner in a failed technology venture, did not send a letter.

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