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Articles Regarding Southern California Cities...
And Those That Represent Them

Huntington Park Cuts Ties With Leal Law Firm

By Brian Hews and Randy Economy

Within hours after a published report by Los Cerritos Community Newspaper that outlined specific details of a controversial contract between the City of Huntington Park and its longtime powerful city attorney Francisco Leal, the formal relationship between the two entities was officially dissolved on Tuesday.

“The City of Huntington Park and its contracted City Attorney, Francisco Leal of the Law Firm of Leal & Trejo have agreed to part ways. The City Council of Huntington Park received the resignation today of Leal and Trejo which takes effect immediately. Mr. Leal and his firm have represented this City since December 2003 on legal matters pertaining to city business, policies, procedures and contracts.”

“The City appreciates his services to date as the agree to part ways.”

“The leadership of the City of Huntington Park has agreed to end the contract for services with our city attorney,” said City Manager Rene Bobadilla.

“At this time, we feel the legal needs of our city have evolved significantly and it was best for us to consider other options and resources to best meet these needs.”

Bobadilla stated that the search for new legal counsel and resources would begin immediately but could not predict how long it would take to name a new city attorney, up to and including a formal RFP Process. “We will work closely with city council members to make sure that future legal counsel can meet the needs of the city’s current and future operational and business concerns.” he said.

City officials stated that they don’t “expect any significant disruptions to current city business for day-to-day operations while this process moves forward.”

“The selection process will be posted on the city’s website and through other appropriate announcements in the next few weeks.”

Interim legal counsel has yet to be determined.

“As a contracted service to the City of Huntington Park, the City Attorney is not an employee of the city and is not entitled to benefits. City Attorney services are provided through contract agreement and can be terminated by the city at its discretion with appropriate notice.”

Los Cerritos Community News published the contract between the law offices of Leal and Trejo on Tuesday afternoon and reported that taxpayers in the cash starved city could be on the financial hook to legally defend LA County Assessor John Noguez in any possible criminal charges he may face in the future, including the ongoing massive political corruption probe at the LA County Assessor’s office.

Leal, who is the main legal counsel with the firm, came under public scrutiny Monday night after angry residents served formal recall notices on all five city council members.

Leal & Trejo’s legal service rates ranged from $180 per hour not to exceed $30,000 per month, and “special legal services” that shall be billed at $250 per hour with no limitation on a monthly amount, LCCN reported.

A closer inspection of the scope description reveals possible loopholes that can allow Leal to defend Noguez, who is a former city councilman and mayor. Noguez is on a formal paid leave of absence from his responsibilities as Assessor of Los Angeles County and is the central figure in a massive criminal probe that is centered on bribery, forgery and money laundering allegations.

Buried in the “scope description” of the contract is the following directive, “(Leal and Trejo) law firm shall….represent and appear for the City, and City officers or employees, or former City officers or employees, in any or all actions and proceedings in which the city or any such officer or employee…. is a party.”

Many observers say the “former City officer or employee loophole” gave Leal permission to defend Noguez in any possible future criminal trials. Noguez was a Huntington Park City Councilman and Mayor between 2005-2010.

REACTION SWIFT FROM COMMUNITY MEMBERS

Reactions poured into Los Cerritos Community Newspaper from some of Leal’s biggest detractors just hours after the decision was made public.

Longtime resident Valentin Amezquita told LCCN that “if it was not because of the pressure of the residents and the media coverage on the city attorney’s salary at $40,000 per month, it would be business as usual in City of Huntington Park.”

“The problem is not over with the City Attorney’s questionable resignation. The problem of the City still remains in the five remaining City Council members who have mismanaged, misled the City, and will continue to do so if not removed quickly from office,” said Amezquita.

Huntington Park Citizens United, an organization who has been “dedicated to bring to light the corruption within Huntington Park” said through spokesperson Karina Macias that, “Government without transparency means they are hiding something. Clearly Mr. Leal has something to hide do to his quickly resignation following the pressure of the current movement for recall of the City Council members.”

Community Activist Marilyn Sanabria also told LCCN that, “Mr. Leal’s questionable resignation is only because he was unable to answer to residents and the huge media coverage on his unjustifiable salary. Many questions remain unanswered in the City of Huntington Park, such as the questionable ties that the current council members have to, currently under investigation, Los Angeles Tax Assessor, John Noguez, and allegations of corruptions that have risen in part because currently the recall process is underway.”

A local website www.watchourcity.com has been reporting on the political climate surrounding Huntington Park City Hall and other local municipalities for the past decade. ”The problems with the City leadership and related contracts like the City Attorney and others have gone on for far too long,” the Editor for the website told LCCN.

Los Cerritos News, October 17, 2012
See http://www.loscerritosnews.net/2012/10/16/huntington-park-cuts-ties-with-leal-law-firm/.

Lawyer's council dealings questioned

By Gene Maddaus, Staff Writer

CARSON - A lawyer with a reputation for shady political dealings has been courting Carson City Council members as they seek to hire a new city attorney.

Francisco Leal, who serves as the city attorney in Maywood and Huntington Park, has met with all three members of the council majority.

Leal's associates also contributed $3,800 to Councilman Mike Gipson's campaign for the Assembly in November. Arturo Fierro, an attorney who works for Leal, gave $900 while his wife, Maria Fierro, contributed $1,000.

The council voted to put the city attorney's contract out to bid in January. It was a surprise move and passed on a 3-2 vote over strident opposition from Mayor Jim Dear and Councilman Harold Williams. The bids are due on Monday.

At the time, members of the council majority gave only a vague rationale for the decision, saying it would be "healthy" to go through the bid process and would ensure greater "transparency."

But a source who attended a meeting between Leal and Gipson in November said the decision came at Leal's urging.

At the time, Gipson was struggling to raise money for his campaign for the 55th Assembly District. He would go on to lose that race to his better-financed opponent, Warren Furutani.

According to the source, Leal made repeated offers to bundle contributions for Gipson, beginning in late October. Ultimately, Gipson met with Leal and Fierro at the Sizzler restaurant in Carson in mid-November. At the meeting, Leal urged Gipson to put the attorney's contract out to bid, according to the source who attended. Gipson said he had no control over the votes of the two other majority members: Councilman Elito Santarina and Councilwoman Lula Davis-Holmes.

In an interview, Gipson said he had met Leal, but could not remember the circumstances of the meeting or what was said.

Long Beach Press Telegram, March 23, 2008

Los Angeles lobbyist received big legal contract from Huntington Park

August 13, 2010 -- 12:14 pm

The city of Bell is not the only place in Southeast Los Angeles that awards large contracts to city officials.

La Opinion reported Thursday that the city of Huntington Park paid its city attorney, Francisco Leal, more than $500,000 last year.

Leal is also a registered lobbyist in Sacramento. His firm lobbies for Huntington Park, and has received $57,000 from the city between January 2009 and June 2010. Leal also lobbies for the cities of Cudahy and Lynwood.

Leal's firm has received a total of $184,000 from local governments for lobbying services since January 2009.

See latimesblogs.latimes.com/california-politics/2010/08/los-angeles-lobbyist-received-big-legal-contract-from-huntington-park.html

Leal out as option for Carson attorney

By Gene Maddaus, Staff Writer

Francisco Leal, a controversial lawyer with close ties to Carson's council majority, has dropped out of the running for the job of city attorney.

An article in Sunday's Daily Breeze identified Leal as the driving force behind Carson's decision to seek bids for its legal services contract.

An associate who spoke with Leal last week said that he was still planning to seek the job at that time. But when the deadline passed Monday, Leal's firm had not submitted a proposal.

"It looks like they probably didn't bid because of the newspaper article," Mayor Jim Dear said. "It was clear there was some type of conspiracy going on and so they backed out, because of the public having a view of what was going on."

Leal did not return a call seeking comment Monday.

In Sunday's article, the Breeze reported that Leal had met with all three members of Carson's council majority. Leal's associates had also contributed $3,800 to Councilman Mike Gipson's campaign for the state Assembly in November.

A source who spoke on condition of anonymity said that Gipson met with Leal at a Sizzler restaurant a few days before the contributions were made. At the time, Leal urged Gipson to put the city attorney's contract out to bid, the source said. Gipson agreed.

Dear, who voted against seeking bids in January, said he now believes the process has been tainted.

"Everything should be completely transparent and open to the public," he said. "I want no backroom deals." Thirteen other firms - including Aleshire & Wynder, the firm that currently holds the contract - submitted bids by the 2:30 p.m. deadline. Bill Wynder, who serves as Carson's city attorney, said the firm proposed to maintain its current rates for another year.

City Clerk Helen Kawagoe disclosed the names of the 13 bidders on Monday, but did not release the bid amounts or the proposals themselves.

Among those seeking Carson's lucrative contract are well-known firms like Burke, Williams & Sorenson, Best, Best & Krieger, and Jones & Mayer.

"This is a wonderful opportunity," said James Casso of the firm Meyers, Nave, Riback, Silver & Wilson, which submitted a bid. "Carson is a city that has a very active Redevelopment Agency, and very active issues with mobile home parks. You've got the Home Depot Center, the remediation of the old landfill site. There's exciting opportunities within the city."

Carson's contract is expected to be worth as much as $1 million a year to the winning firm. City staff will review the proposals and select five finalists for the council to interview.

A 14th firm attempted to submit a proposal, but its representative arrived two minutes after the deadline and was turned away. That firm, Strategic Counsel, is led by Cynthia McClain-Hill, who made a $1,000 contribution to Gipson's Assembly campaign in December.

Daily Breeze, March 25, 2008

No Place of Grace

Maywood's Mayor faces a death threat, allegations of corruption and, now, a recall

By Matthew Fleischer


"...[Maywood Mayor Felipe] Aguirre says that before applying for the funds he consulted David Mango, Maywood director of building and planning, and then-City Attorney Francisco Leal. He says they told him that, as a business owner, Aguirre was entitled to participate in the program - provided he didn't use his political influence to skew the application process in his favor.

But the city attorney whose advice Aguirre sought has problems of his own. Back in 1999, the Los Angeles Times reported that Leal, working as a private attorney, threatened to launch a recall campaign against city council members in Lynnwood, Commerce and Bell Gardens if those cities didn't retain his legal services. Last year Jesse Jauregui, Leal's former law partner, told Jeffrey Anderson that Leal's style was straight out of Tammany Hall, the infamously corrupt Democratic club that ran New York City politics from the birth of the nation through the 1950s.

Aguirre says he had to fire Leal a few months ago for allegedly demanding kickbacks from a local developer, Gabriel Guerrero, who was negotiating with Maywood's Community Redevelopment Agency for several fat city redevelopment contracts. According to Aguirre, Leal is now among those leading the recall effort.

Neither Leal, nor Maywood Club Towing owner Tooradj Khosroabadi, also known as "Tony Bravo," responded to calls for comment."

Los Angeles CityBeat, December 4, 2008
See www.lacitybeat.com/cms/story/detail/no_place_of_grace/7831/.

The Town the Law Forgot
An L.A. 'burb is mired in gangs, cartels and south-of-the-border-style politics

By Jeffrey Anderson

(Excerpt of article) Ever-present in Cudahy and its neighboring cities are three attorneys who have, over the years, blended municipal law and lobbying to great effect. Arnoldo Beltran, Francisco Leal and David Olivas have made a small fortune representing scandal-plagued cities. Today, Olivas represents Cudahy and Leal represents Maywood, with the two cities sharing a police force that is in disarray.

Perhaps foremost among the many controversies in which these lawyers have been embroiled are allegations explored in a 1999 L.A. Times story that Beltran, a Stanford-educated lawyer, and Leal, a Harvard Law School graduate raised by immigrants in El Paso, were threatening to launch recall campaigns against elected officials in Lynwood, Commerce and Bell Gardens if they did not vote to retain the two men's legal services.

Beltran and Leal, former partners in a now-defunct law firm that also included Olivas as an associate, at the time denied the allegations. Beltran would not comment for this article. Leal did not return several calls for comment. But they would be hard-pressed to deny that their political savvy has earned them a reputation for being influential advisers to many small cities.

In 1999, the firm split, with Leal and Olivas going off to form Leal, Olivas & Jauregui, which represented the city of Cudahy in 2000 when Perez made the revolving-door move, through a series of ordinances drafted by David Olivas, from city councilman to city manager. The resulting grand-jury investigation did not lead to criminal charges but left a lasting mark on the city.

Less than a year later, in Bell Gardens, Beltran drafted a slightly different ordinance with the exact same effect: to upgrade a city councilwoman, Maria Chacon, to city manager. The move had serious consequences. Investigators from the D.A.'s office searched Beltran's offices in 2001 in connection with an investigation of Chacon, whom they later charged with criminal conflict of interest. Beltran hired celebrity defense lawyer Mark Geragos, though Beltran was not named as a target of the investigation, nor was he charged with a crime.

Chacon spent the next several years defending the charges on grounds that Beltran advised her it was okay to vote on the ordinance that allowed her to switch roles from council member to city manager. The state Supreme Court rejected that defense recently, clearing the way for Cooley's office to take her to trial.

The methods of Beltran, Leal and Olivas left a mark on their former law partner Jesse Jauregui, who broke all ties with the group in 2001. Jauregui has this -- and only this -- to say about his old colleagues: "I'm glad to no longer be a part of Tammany Hall'style politics. How far it goes, I do not know. It became a seamy situation."

The legal maneuvering that led to new leadership in Cudahy was part of a larger strategy, says former Cudahy councilwoman Araceli Gonzalez, a child of Mexican immigrants. "They were very outspoken," says Gonzalez of the lawyers who advised Cudahy and Bell Gardens. "They were telling people they were going to take over these cities and put Latinos in power."

Olivas, now in his own law practice while wearing two hats -- as Cudahy city attorney and councilman in Baldwin Park -- argues that the move to anoint Perez as Cudahy city manager was about Latino self-determination, and that change in leadership in small southeast L.A. County cities was for the better.

"People were tired of being governed by outsiders," Olivas says. "This was people from Cudahy, of Cudahy and for Cudahy."

But since that time of upheaval, certain actions by Cudahy officials have raised questions about whether they are acting in the public's best interest as Maywood struggles to get the two cities' shared police force under control.

http://www.laweekly.com/general/features/the-town-the-law-forgot/15731/
Los Angeles Weekly
February 21, 2007


Beltran subject of area debate

By Frank C. Girardot, Staff Writer

MONTEBELLO - J. Arnoldo Beltran speaks with the rhythmic cadence of a lawyer who has argued his fair share of cases over the past three decades.

Appointed city attorney in February by a 3-2 vote of the Montebello City Council, Beltran is known for his advocacy of Latino causes and his sometimes gruff manner.

Though his arguments are seldom presented in court - more often than not, they are laid out in closed session - Beltran is accustomed to the limelight.

He was a key player in Bell Gardens when the council there voted to promote a councilwoman to city manager. That led to a District Attorney's Office investigation and criminal charges against Maria Chacon, the Bell Gardens councilwoman.

Chacon blamed Beltran for giving the advice that she relied on for making the switch. That defense was shot down by the California Supreme Court in February, paving the way for Chacon's trial later this year.

Beltran defended himself and pointed to the accusations against him as business as usual.

"When they see Arnoldo come out and be hired as city attorney, all these other people come out and say, `I'm going to get that so-and-so,"' he said. "It took me a while to get used to it. But now, I really don't care."

Beltran said he did nothing wrong in the Chacon case, but the finger-pointing was understandable.

"What else was she left with?" he asked.

A resident of Pasadena, Beltran, 56, is a Stanford-educated lawyer. After graduating law school in 1977, he began practicing corporate law. He has also represented the governments of Mexico and El Salvador as well as the National Association of Latino Elected Officials.

It was only after the Los Angeles riots in 1992, and a stint with Rebuild L.A., that Beltran partnered with H. Francisco Leal and began representing cities.

At first, the newly formed firm represented Commerce and Cudahy, Beltran said. The firm expanded into Bell Gardens in 1994, with Beltran taking the reins as city attorney.

Despite being in the heart of industrial southeastern Los Angeles County, Commerce and Bell Gardens are cities with a solid source of revenue generated by card clubs. Both have similar demographics. According to the 2000 Census, Commerce was almost 94 percent Latino. Neighboring Bell Gardens had a 93 percent Latino population.

Because of their often divided councils and lack of consistent news coverage, cities in southeastern Los Angeles County are perfect clients for attorneys like Beltran, Leal and others, according to deputy District Attorney David Demerjian, who heads the Public Integrity Division.

"They are looking for the dynamic of a council that's split 3-2," Demerjian said.

That sort of split was evident in 2000 in Bell Gardens. At the time, Beltran and his associates on City Council came into the spotlight when a suit filed by a political opponent alleged Beltran was behind a political hijacking of the Bell Gardens City Council and "other political jurisdictions of Los Angeles County."

The suit claimed Beltran's agenda was to appoint like-minded city employees and pay them well above what neighboring cities were paying.

Identifying Beltran and his allies as the "Beltran Group," the suit alleged the lawyer ran a Tammany Hall-style operation, with all the trappings of political patronage, funds skimmed from public coffers, and influence peddling.

"The Beltran Group have worked together since 1994 towards the common goal of seeking, obtaining and exercising control over the political, executive, legislative, quasi-judicial, administrative and ministerial decision making of the government of Bell Gardens," the suit alleged.

The attorney who filed the suit against Beltran was Peter Wallin, who recently resigned his post from Rosemead and was himself a former Bell Gardens city attorney.

The suit also claimed that the so-called "Beltran Group" took control of city appointments, paid their allies salaries in "excess of the value of their services," and "form\ grass-roots ... groups to support the campaigns and political decisions of the Beltran Group."

Among those employed by Bell Gardens during Beltran's reign was Montebello Councilwoman Rosie Vasquez, who was the city's community services director.

Vasquez was one of three votes in favor of hiring Beltran as Montebello's City Attorney. The others, Jeff Siccama and Bill Molinari, make up a majority in the otherwise divided council.

The Bell Gardens suit was ultimately settled out of court. Bell Gardens officials did not respond to a Public Records Act request seeking the settlement amount.

The current Bell Gardens City Attorney, Arnold Alvarez-Glasman, who holds the same post in West Covina, did not comment on the settlement.

Beltran said he didn't recall the lawsuit.

"I don't remember the allegation or premise," he said.

Ultimately, Beltran split from his firm. Leal continued representing Commerce, while associate David Olivas, currently a Baldwin Park city councilman, took over as city attorney in Cudahy.

Beltran stayed on in Bell Gardens before he was removed in 2001. He moved on to represent Lynwood in 2003. He also represents the Cerritos-based Water Replenishment District, which manages ground water distribution in 43 cities in southeastern Los Angeles County, including Montebello, Commerce, Cudahy and Lynwood.

While elected members of the Water Replenishment District have been able to stay out of the District Attorney's investigative cross-hairs, two current and three former Lynwood council members were indicted earlier this month for using hundreds of thousands of dollars in public money to increase their income, pay off personal expenses and hire a stripper at a bar in Mexico.

Beltran was not involved in any of the decisions that led to the criminal charges, and he declined to comment on the case.

While plenty of his associates were willing to open up about Beltran off the record, others simply refused to comment on the attorney, his practice or his record.

Among them:

Montebello's Vasquez, who did not return two phone calls seeking comment.

Molinari, a Vasquez colleague in Montebello, who voted to hire Beltran in February.

"I don't have time to discuss him," Molinari said.

Olivas, the former law firm associate, now city attorney in Cudahy and member of the Baldwin Park City Council.

"I don't feel comfortable talking about him," Olivas said.

Jesse Jauregui, a former partner of Beltran and attorney H. Francisco Leal.

"I wish I could, but I can't," said Jauregui, now a corporate lawyer with Weston, Benshoof, Rochefort, Rubalcava, MacCuish LLP.

Nonetheless, Jauregui recently told the L.A. Weekly that he quit working for Beltran and Leal several years ago and added, "I'm glad to no longer be a part of Tammany Hall-style politics."

To which Beltran responded Thursday: "I wish somebody would identify what Mr. Jauregui could have been referring to."

Beltran has his share of defenders, too. Among them is Siccama, the third Montebello city councilman who voted to hire Beltran in February.

"My experience has been that he is very ethical and even-handed all the way through," Siccama said.

Whittier Daily News, April 22, 2007

Records do the talking

Big changes have come to Montebello's city government, and they're coming at a lightning pace. But do they signal improvement, or are they evidence for concern?

Recently, the City Council has fired Community Development Director Ruben Lopez, fire Chief Jim Cox, City Attorney Marco Lopez and, just last month, City Administrator Richard Torres.

After serving 18 years, Torres wasn't dismissed for cause, so the council's impatience for "fresh blood" and a "different direction" will cost the city an estimated $200,000.

But of equal interest are the City Council's new hires - Arnoldo Beltran as city attorney and Randy Narramore, Huntington Park's former police chief, as interim city administrator.

We've seen this type of rapid overhaul before. It often begins with the marriage of elected officials to a politically powerful attorney.

For example, South Gate's suffering began with a change in its City Council, which produced a new three-vote majority that ceded power to city treasurer Albert Robles.

Allied with city attorney Salvador Alva, Robles brought in a new city manager, with no experience, and a new police chief. After plundering $20 million from city coffers, Robles was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.

Similarly, Huntington Park Mayor Edward Escareno hired Francisco Leal as city attorney. Later, Escareno was charged with misappropriation of public funds and convicted of felony grand theft.

In Lynwood, longtime mayor Paul Richards was sentenced to 16 years in prison for municipal corruption, while Beltran, his city attorney, continues in office.

Bell Gardens Councilwoman Maria Chacon also partnered with Beltran, creating an ordinance that allowed Chacon to become city manager.

After the DA charged Chacon with criminal conflict of interest for her vote approving the ordinance, her unsuccessful defense was that Beltran advised her she could.

These incidents weren't entirely unexpected.

Back in 1999, a Los Angeles Times story included allegations that Beltran and Leal had threatened to launch recall campaigns against councilmembers in Lynwood, Commerce and Bell Gardens, if they refused to award city attorney contracts to their law firm.

L.A. Weekly reported that Jesse Jauregui, former partner of Beltran and Leal, said of his former colleagues, "I'm glad to no longer be a part of Tammany Hall-style politics," a reference to Boss Tweed's infamous New York political machine.

So, just what was in the minds of Montebello councilmembers when they voted to employ Beltran as city attorney and Escareno's police chief as interim city administrator?

Whatever the answer, it's hard to gain comfort from reports that Councilwoman Rosie Vasquez was not concerned about Beltran's qualifications or that Mayor Norma Lopez-Reid had been "very impressed" by Narramore, a subject in several well-publicized discrimination lawsuits filed against the Huntington Park police department by minority officers.

If nothing else, it's certainly a time for the people of Montebello to remain attentive.

Richard P. McKee is past-president of Californians Aware and a La Verne resident.
Whittier Daily News, April 13, 2007


Disorderly conduct

`DEMOCRACY is a form of government which may be rationally defended, not as being good, but as being less bad than any other," wrote William Ralph Inge in 1919.

Given that definition, perhaps we are too harsh when we grow impatient with city governments like the ones that exist in Pico Rivera and Montebello.

Right now, both cities are in the midst of transitions in their city attorneys and, in our opinion, both are doing a rather messy job of it.

In Pico Rivera, City Attorney James M. Casso earlier this month resigned just before the City Council was to vote on his termination.

Two days after Casso resigned, the council voted 4-1 in a closed personnel session to hire their sole applicant for the job, veteran municipal lawyer Arnold Alvarez-Glasman, as their new city attorney.

At the time, Mayor Ron Beilke explained there was an urgency to fill the position because several city projects were falling behind.

"We wanted to move quickly," Beilke was quoted.

For once, we found ourselves siding with the lone dissenter in the 4-1 vote to hire Alvarez-Glasman.

Councilman David Armenta said he voted against the appointment because the position was not put out for bid. Rarely, if ever, have we agreed with Armenta before.

"I didn't know until the day before that we already had an applicant to vote on," Armenta said. "I think the people deserve an open and competitive process."

At the very least, the Pico Rivera City Council could have taken Alvarez-Glasman on a temporary retainer while a proper search was conducted. While Alvarez-Glasman has significant depth of experience with more than a half-dozen cities, he also was fired by Montebello.

Speaking of Montebello, we are also quite confused about what is going on in that city regarding its recent vote to appoint J. Arnoldo Beltran as its new city attorney, replacing Marco Martinez, who was fired.

Beltran was hired in February by a majority vote of Jeff Siccima, Bill Molinari and Rosie Vasquez, with Bob Bagwell and Norma Lopez-Reid opposed.

However, many weeks have passed and still Beltran's contract remains unsigned. Why the contract has not been signed - making the hiring official - remains unexplained.

As mayor, Lopez-Reid is authorized to sign all contracts approved by the council. However, she hasn't signed and says she has "personal reservations" about Beltran. The mayor pro tem, Molinari, calls this an illegal action.

At this juncture, with the Beltran contract favorably voted upon but unsigned, it is quite apparent how factionalized governing councils can easily lose sight of good sense and the greater good of the community.

About all we can say is that it looks like the Montebello City Council will need a good lawyer to get out of this one.

Pasadena Star News, April 27, 2007

DA requests council's minutes
Complaint spurs Brown Act probe

By Frank C. Girardot, Staff Writer

MONTEBELLO - The District Attorney's office Thursday requested the minutes of a City Council meeting at which City Attorney J. Arnoldo Beltran was hired.

Deputy District Attorney David Demerjian, head of the Public Integrity Division, said the request was initiated after a complaint was received about an alleged violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state's open meeting law. The investigation was opened March 16, he said.

"We will normally want to look at the agenda and minutes and a video recording or a tape recording - if there is such a thing," Demerjian said. "Normally a review of these items resolves the issue."

He declined to say who made the complaint.

The Feb. 6 special meeting agenda included a discussion of a housing bond in open session. The council then adjourned to closed session and voted 3-2 to retain the services of Beltran.

Minutes of the 3 p.m. meeting were not available Thursday and won't be available until they are approved by the council, said a spokeswoman for the city clerk's office.

The council reported out of the closed session that council members Rosie Vasquez, Jeff Siccama and Bill Molinari voted for Beltran while Mayor Norma Lopez-Reid and Councilman Bill Bagwell voted against.

In a subsequent meeting, Bagwell later joined the majority in a 4-0 vote to authorize Beltran's contract. Lopez-Reid abstained and has since refused to sign Beltran's contract.

Beltran had no comment Thursday on the DA's probe.

"I think if the DA wants to come in and take a close look and scrutinize, I'm for it," Lopez-Reid said. "It will help the city in the long run. Some of us, who haven't done anything wrong, know we're fine."

Open government law expert Terry Francke of Californians Aware said it would be hard to pinpoint what the investigators are seeking. But, it's likely something may have happened in closed session to trigger a complaint and the probe, he said.

It's possible that "a member of the council or somebody else with personal knowledge tipped the DA that something improper went on there," Francke said.

As mayor, Lopez-Reid's signature is required to approve all contracts before they take effect. Lopez-Reid said she declined to sign Beltran's contract because of personal reservations.

"I didn't vote for the man and I have reservations about \," Lopez-Reid said.

Molinari, meanwhile, said Thursday that the council should schedule a special meeting to hold Lopez-Reid accountable for her inaction.

"What this amounts to is an illegal action to force Mr. Beltran to resign," Molinari said. "There's no justification for this conduct."

Molinari would be able to sign Beltran's contract in the event of Lopez-Reid's absence from the city or incapacitation.

Lopez-Reid urged Molinari to go ahead and sign the deal.

"Maybe if we do have a special meeting we can designate him to sign the contact," Lopez-Reid said.

Whittier Daily News, April 27, 2007

Beltran removed as city attorney

By Marisela Santana, Staff Writer

LYNWOOD - J. Arnoldo Beltran, principal of the Beltran and Medina law firm, was released from his contract as city attorney by a 4-1 vote of the City Council Tuesday night during a closed session meeting at the new Lynwood Senior Center.

The attorney, who has served as Montebello-s city attorney since February as well, was terminated by Mayor Louis Byrd and council members Fernando Pedroza, Alfreddie Johnson and Leticia Vasquez. No reason foir the change was announced.

Councilwoman Maria Santillan cast the only dissenting vote.

Beltran, who would not return telephone calls, was hired in December 2003.

Byrd and Vasquez first sought to replace Beltran in early 2005, citing what they said were high monthly billing statements. At the time, council members Pedroza and Santillan voted against replacing Beltran.

Johnson, who was new to the council at the time, said at the time he preferred to have more time to consider such a change.

At the time, Vasquez said that she was targeting not only Beltran's fees, but those of Redevelopment Agency counsel Ronald Wilson's fees.

The matter was dropped and instead of firing either law firm, a cap was placed on Beltran's fees.

Sources say council members have been uneasy with Beltran since the latest recall campaign was initiated. One City Hall source said that four council members who voted to terminate Beltran's contract are angry that Beltran didn't protect them from the recall. Others are saying that Beltran is being relieved of his city attorney duties because council wants him to be a yesman and cites the law to them too much.

"This is merely a matter of these people parking all of their friends in the best places to get what they want done, even if it is illegal,"� one source said. "Parking them in good paying jobs with contracts that will be unbreakable. It really is business as usual in this city. What they're trying to do is pass their business and protect the staff who sits here and does nothing."�

Also during closed session and while Pedroza and Johnson reportedly played a game of pool in the Senior Center's Rec Room, the council agreed to retain the services of Anthony Willoughby as the city's new attorney, at the suggestion of Vasquez. The council also agreed to hire Roger Haley, a department head in Long Beach's Business Development Division, as the new city manager.

But because neither action was a scheduled agenda item, a special City Council meeting is being planned for Thursday at City Hall, to discuss the new city attorney, the new city manager and the city's new amended exclusive negotiating agreement with John McDonald of Imperial Partners regarding the Lynwood Promenade project, now being called Angeles Fields.

"To me this sounds like they already made up their minds on who they wanted to hire to replace Arnoldo,"� said Ramon Rodriguez, a former councilman who is seeking to replace Pedroza in the special recall election Sept. 25. "They haven't even discussed these replacements openly so the community can hear the options. They just throw out a name, and all agree. Behind some closed door, they've all agreed to all of these matters."�

Wave Newspapers, July 19, 2007

Cronyism continues

Similar to Pico Rivera, Montebello is now going through a shake-up at the top of its municipal government.

We're disappointed that the 3-2 majorities of the city councils of both cities appear to have chosen paths that hint of shortcutting their processes for rebuilding their top administrative leadership rather than conducting professional searches for the most qualified applicants.

Pico Rivera and Montebello are cities where recent history should signal to the elected council members that it is time for them to show their willingness to hire outside agencies to search for top candidates for their highest offices, so they can choose the best people at a wage the cities can afford.

Most importantly, this would demonstrate to their constituents and to their political rivals that they are willing to distance themselves from the temptation to select cronies.

Actually, we thought when council members Norma Lopez-Reid, Bob Bagwell and Jeff Siccima became the "reform" Montebello council majority in 2005, we would see a decline of what we perceived as cronyism.

But it has been surprising to watch, after the recent firing of City Attorney Marco Martinez, the hiring of Arnoldo Beltran to succeed him. A relative of Beltran's worked on Siccima's election campaign. Could that be significant? We're not sure. That's the problem with cronyism, we think it means something, but we're not exactly sure what.

But you know what they say about ducks.

Siccima, Lopez-Reid and Bagwell also voted to end City Administrator Richard Torres' 18-year career with the city and appoint former Huntington Park police Chief Randy E. Narramore as interim administrator as they placed advertisements for applicants for a permanent city administrator in various publications.

We weren't particularly impressed that it appeared that one of the reasons Narramore was selected as the acting city administrator was he served briefly as interim district manager of the Los Angeles County Vector Control District, where Lopez-Reid met him and thought "he did a great job."

When there is a severe split on a governing board, the majority can adhere meticulously and scrupulously to detail to avoid criticism from the minority members or just because it is the better way to function.

To do otherwise, it seems, is to get sloppy because they have the power.

This transition between city administrators is the juncture where we hoped the Montebello council would take the high road and opt for squeaky cleanness.

It seemed the council majority would want to do more than place advertisements in strategic publications. It seemed they might want to go out and hire a good headhunter company to conduct a search and bring back a half-dozen of the best candidates for the council to interview and, perhaps, choose the best person for the job from that list.

Right now there still seems to be time for the Montebello council majority to do something really refreshingly different than the things they complained about when they were in the minority.

But, we haven't seen any indication yet that they intend to become heroic at this stage.

Politics-as-usual can get fairly exciting, but Montebello and Pico Rivera would both be well-served by some unexciting efficiency.

Pasadena Star News, April 6, 2007

S.C. Rejects "Estoppel by Entrapment" Defense for Former Official

By Kenneth Ofgang, Staff Writer

A public official charged with violating conflict of interest laws cannot assert a defense based on claims her agency's legal counsel advised that no conflict existed, the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled yesterday.

The justices said Maria S. Chacon must face trial on felony charges that, while serving on the Bell Gardens City Council, she participated in an arrangement resulting in her appointment as city manager, and that the trial judge cannot charge the jury on "entrapment by estoppel."

The high court's decision upholds a Court of Appeal ruling in favor of District Attorney Steve Cooley, who charged Chacon under Government Code Sec. 1090, which makes it a crime for a public official to participate in the making of a contract in which the official has or expects a financial interest.

Prosecutors abandoned the charges after Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael M. Johnson said that at a trial he would, if the evidence warranted it, instruct jurors Chacon could not be convicted if she acted in reliance on advice from then-City Attorney Arnoldo Beltran.

City Manager Post

Chacon is charged with conspiring with other council members to repeal an ordinance barring council members from accepting the post of city manager until they had been off the council for a year.

The ordinance was repealed in October of 2000, with Chacon joining her colleagues in voting in favor of the repeal, and Chacon accepted the city manager job in December of that year.

She held the job for just a few months, having been placed on administrative leave after the charges were filed and eventually fired by the council.

Her lawyers said she would present testimony that Beltran proposed eliminating the existing ordinance, drafted the repeal, and drafted the contract hiring her as city manager. Her due process rights under the U.S. Constitution would be violated if she could be prosecuted for relying on Beltran's advice, she contended.

Johnson agreed, saying he was bound to follow Cox v. Louisiana (1965) 379 U.S. 559. Cox held that demonstrators could not be prosecuted for picketing near a courthouse after the police chief and city officials told them it would be legal to do so across the street.

But Justice Carol Corrigan, writing for the Supreme Court, distinguished the cases.

"Unlike those charged in Cox...defendant was not an ordinary citizen confronting the power of the state," she wrote. "Defendant was a member of the executive branch of government. A public office is a position held for the benefit of the people; defendant was obligated to discharge her responsibilities with integrity and fidelity."

Public Policy

"Allowing public officials to assert a defense to conflict of interest charges by claiming reliance on the advice of public attorneys charged with counseling them and advocating on their behalf," the justice wrote, "It is antithetical to the strong public policy of strict enforcement of conflict of interest statutes and the attendant personal responsibility demanded of our officials."

That reasoning is particularly strong in general law cities, where the city attorney is appointed by and is subordinate to the city council. "An official cannot escape liability for conflict of interest violations by claiming to have been misinformed by an employee serving at her pleasure," Corrigan wrote, as this would put the city attorney in the untenable position of having to choose between loyalty to the official and public duty.

Corrigan also noted that the city attorney has no authority to enforce criminal laws, unlike the police officials in Cox.

The high court also rejected Chacon's argument that prosecutors were not entitled to appeal the dismissal of the case against her.

Previous cases involving the exclusion of evidence, Corrigan explained, have allowed prosecutors to abandon a case and then argue the evidentiary issue on appeal from the resulting dismissal. The rationale of those decisions, that if the prosecutors had to go forward without their evidence and lost they could not appeal an acquittal, applies equally to the situation where the trial judge rules in favor of allowing the presentation of a defense the prosecution contends is legally untenable.

The case was argued on appeal by Michael D. Nasatir of Santa Monica's Nasatir, Hirsch, Podberesky & Genego for Chacon and by Deputy District Attorney Phyllis C. Asayama.

The case is People v. Chacon, 07 S.O.S. 723.

Metropolitan News-Enterprise, February 9, 2007

Ex-Bell Gardens official loses state high court ruling;
The decision clears the way for the prosecution of Maria Chacon in a conflict-of-interest case

Maura Dolan, Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- Ruling against a former Bell Gardens City Council member, the California Supreme Court decided Thursday that public officials may be guilty of corruption even if they relied on a government attorney's opinion that their conduct was legal.

The unanimous decision clears the way for the prosecution of ex-council member Maria Chacon, who was charged with conflict of interest after allegedly pressuring other council members to appoint her city manager.

Chacon contended that she based her actions on an opinion from the city attorney, but the court said that was no defense.

"A public official is not required to know that his conduct is unlawful" to be found to have broken the law, Justice Carol A. Corrigan wrote for the court. "Therefore, reliance on advice of counsel as to the lawfulness of the conduct is irrelevant."

Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley called the decision a "big victory for us and those other prosecutors in California who are actively enforcing conflict-of-interest laws."

"This sends a very, very powerful message that this mechanism to circumvent conflict-of-interest statutes is not going to be tolerated," Cooley said.

D.A. spokeswoman Sandi Gibbons said many counties around the state prosecute public corruption, and the defense the Supreme Court struck down was not uncommon.

"This has huge statewide significance," Gibbons said.

Michael D. Nasatir, an attorney for Chacon, said he was "terribly disappointed."

"Maria Chacon has always maintained that she is entirely innocent of these charges," Nasatir said. "We will not stop fighting until her innocence is established. We respect the American jury system, and her salvation is now in the hands of a jury of her peers."

Cooley said he was unaware of Chacon's current employment, and Nasatir declined to elaborate beyond his statement. If convicted of the felony charge, Chacon could receive a maximum of three years in prison.

Chacon, arrested in 2001, was considered the most powerful public official in Bell Gardens at the time. She was credited with a campaign in the early 1990s to oust the white-majority council in the heavily Latino city and helped allies win elections.

Many residents protested her appointment as city manager, saying she was unqualified because she lacked a college degree and had no experience running a city.

Prosecutors said Chacon, in an effort to get the appointment, sought the support of another council member and told him of her desired salary and terms. But the Bell Gardens municipal code prohibited anyone from being appointed within one year of service on the City Council.

That waiting period was removed by a vote of the council, which included Chacon. The other council members later gave her an $80,000 annual contract, and she moved from the council to the city manager's office.

Cooley prosecuted Chacon under a state law that prohibits public officials from having a financial interest in a contract approved by their agency.

A trial judge ruled that Chacon could present evidence that she had relied on advice from the city attorney that her conduct was legal. L.A. prosecutors said they could not proceed under those circumstances, and the judge dismissed the case.

But prosecutors appealed to the 2nd District Court of Appeal, which overruled the trial judge. The state Supreme Court upheld the appellate decision.

The defense Chacon wanted to use -- reliance on advice from a government official -- has been recognized as legitimate in other cases. But the Supreme Court said it should not be extended to public officials who claim reliance on "public attorneys charged with counseling them and advocating on their behalf."

The court observed that the city attorney in Bell Gardens was a subordinate of the City Council. An official cannot escape liability by "claiming to have been misinformed by an employee serving at her pleasure," the court said.

Otherwise, a public official could "insulate herself from prosecution by influencing an appointee to provide the advice she seeks."

The court did not determine that Chacon had violated the law, only that she could not rely on the defense of bad advice from a government lawyer. A trial date has yet to be set.

Los Angeles Times, February 9, 2007

Alhambra school board attorney resigns

Cindy Chang, Staff Writer
Pasadena Star News, January 13, 2005

ALHAMBRA -- Francisco Leal, the Alhambra Unified School District's general counsel, has resigned from his post to pre-empt a newly constituted school board from firing him.

Leal's law firm, Leal & Dominguez, was appointed to the Alhambra job in April 2003 over the objections of two school board members who said colleagues with personal ties to Leal were forcing the choice through without adequate time for deliberation.

A parent later sued the school district, alleging the decision to appoint Leal's firm was made behind closed doors in violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state's open-meeting law.

"We were taking care of friends and not looking at the district as the first priority. That was when things started getting out of hand,' said Barbara Messina, one of the board members who voted against the appointment.

Leal & Dominguez represents the scandal-plagued cities of Bell Gardens, Cudahy and Huntington Park. The firm was fired by Commerce and Lynwood, but was later rehired by Commerce and now does work for the Lynwood Unified School District.

District officials received Leal's resignation letter Tuesday, the same day the board was scheduled to consider canceling his contract at its regular meeting.

Leal says he does not believe the effort to push him out was politically motivated. The school board's plan to consolidate its legal work with another law firm, Lozano Smith, ending the recent practice of spreading the work among several law firms, "makes sense,' according to Leal.

"I get a sense that they're looking to consolidate their legal services. At this point, another firm is doing most of the services. It's been an ongoing issue with the district, how to best handle their legal services,' Leal said.

New school board members Adele Andrade-Stadler and Pat Mackintosh beat two incumbents in November to win their seats, running as a slate with Messina.

The board, like the City Council, had been split between two factions, with Messina and Bob Gin on one side, William Vallejos and Ruth Castro on the other, and John Nunez trying to stay on good terms with both.

The Messina school board slate was backed by Mayor Paul Talbot, and Talbot-supported candidates swept the City Council races, tilting the balance of power on both bodies decidedly in favor of the Talbot faction.

Nunez had voted with Vallejos and Castro to award the general counsel job to Leal's firm, and the support of Andrade- Stadler and Mackintosh gave Messina and Gin the majority they needed to reconsider the contract.

Vallejos, one of the school board incumbents who was unseated, would not comment on the decision to place the Leal contract back on the agenda, though he said it did not surprise him.

"That's the new board, and I prefer not to comment on what they're doing,' said Vallejos, who accepted campaign donations from Leal, and who recently took a job at Leal's firm.

The district's contract with Leal's lobbying firm, Legislative Advocacy Group, was also slated for cancellation at Tuesday's school board meeting and was ended by the school board after Leal's resignation letter. Under that August 2001 contract, the school district paid Legislative Advocacy $4,000 a month, even though board members say the firm had done little work in recent years.

The Leal & Dominguez contract sets hourly rates ranging from $140 an hour for junior attorneys to $175 an hour for Leal's services.

School board members hope consolidating legal work with Lozano Smith will save them money because such contracts are typically negotiated with a single price tag, allowing the client to dispense with the uncertainties of hourly billing.

Unlike Leal's firm, Lozano Smith has a substantial education law practice, representing more than 300 school and college districts.

"We brought up the fact of what we could do to put money back into the classroom. We had to start downsizing someplace. We had quite a few lawyers, and we had to take a few away,' Mackintosh said.

Alhambra school board's hiring blasted; Three law firms to represent district

By Cindy Chang, Staff Writer

ALHAMBRA -- School board President Barbara Messina says she is "totally opposed' to the board majority's hiring as general counsel a law firm that has represented the scandal-plagued cities of Bell Gardens, Cudahy and Huntington Park, calling the appointment "politically motivated.'

Board members Bill Vallejos and Ruth Castro acknowledged having personal relationships with some of the lawyers at downtown Los Angeles-based Leal Olivas Abich & Dominguez, but denied that those ties influenced their decision to hire the firm.

"What's wrong with knowing the people that you hire? I don't see anything wrong with that at all,' Vallejos said.

Leal Olivas donated $1,000 to Castro's re-election committee last December, campaign filing records show.

"There have been people who've contributed, and I've voted against them,' Castro said. "I can't see that any contribution buys my vote.'

A lobbying firm headed by Francisco Leal, former South Pasadena city attorney and one of the law firm's partners, has been employed by the district since 2001 and was listed on the California secretary of state's Web site as one of California's top 100 lobbying firms for the year 2000.

The resolution appointing Leal's firm as general counsel for the district came over the objections of two board members who said they were strong- armed into a vote without being given a chance to research other options.

"I'm totally opposed to it. The process was not followed,' said Messina. The board majority "came back and said, we are going to hire this firm.' Also opposing the hire was school board member Bob Gin.

The resolution passed by the board calls for Leal Olivas to serve as the district's general counsel and the firm Burke, Williams & Sorensen to work on labor negotiations and special education issues. A third firm, Alvarado, Smith & Sanchez, which was previously the district's general counsel, will represent the district in litigation-related matters.

At a time when the district is trying to trim $7 million from next year's budget, the district cannot afford to employ three law firms, Messina said. Law firms bill by the hour, but the district may be charged higher rates if its lawyers fill only niche duties, she said.

"We can't afford, nor do we need, Leal as legal counsel when we're being asked to tighten our belts,' Messina said.

Messina expressed fears that the new general counsel might be granted license to bill excess hours because of its personal ties to some board members.

"It'll be interesting to see the time they put in. We don't need counsel at meetings all the time,' Messina said.

Board member John Nunez was the third vote to hire the firm.

Messina called the decision to appoint the firm "politically motivated' but declined to provide more details.

The city of Alhambra canceled a planned Latin music festival last fall after questions were raised about ties between two members of the City Council and the firm appointed to organize the festival.

One of those councilmen, Dan Arguello, had previously fought allegations that he helped award a city towing contract to a company because it gave generously to his campaign.

Pasadena Star News, April 24, 2003

Parent sues Alhambra school board;
Brown Act violation alleged in hiring of law firms

By Cindy Chang, Staff Writer

A parent has filed a lawsuit against the Alhambra school board, alleging that board members secretly agreed on the appointment of two law firms more than a month before voting publicly on the issue.

The parent, Carl Tom, filed the suit after exhausting his out-of-court remedies under the Ralph M. Brown Act, a state law created to ensure legislative deliberations are open to public scrutiny.

The Alhambra board avoided possible legal action earlier this year when it rescinded double- digit raises it had approved for the district's assistant superintendents in response to a Brown Act demand letter filed by the teachers' union.

The suit, filed in Los Angeles Superior Court on Thursday, asks for an injunction preventing the law firms from working for the district until the appointments are voted on again.

Even though a second vote would probably result in the appointment of the same two firms, it would affirm the public's right to be involved the process, Tom said.

"They know the right thing to do is to let the public be involved. It's not about the result. It's primarily about the process,' Tom said.

Superintendent Myrna Rivera said she could not comment on the lawsuit since the papers had not yet been officially served on the district.

Attorneys for the two law firms, Leal Olivas Abich & Dominguez and Burke, Williams & Sorensen, could not be reached for comment. Neither firm worked for the district last year but Leal Olivas attorney Francisco Leal is a lobbyist for the Alhambra schools.

Alhambra parents and teachers have sharply criticized the appointments, voicing suspicions that the law firms were chosen because of personal ties with school board members.

The appointment of Leal Olivas has drawn particular scrutiny: politicians in the cities of Commerce, Bell Gardens and Lynwood have accused Francisco Leal and his former law partner, Arnoldo Beltran, of threatening recall campaigns if their firm was not awarded city attorney contracts.

The district spent $422,000 on legal fees, spread among four law firms, from July 2002 through the end of March. The Alhambra district has had to trim $5.2 million from next year's budget because of the state financial crisis.

Richard Davis, Tom's lawyer, pointed to an unsigned retainer agreement as evidence that the appointments were a done deal well before the board voted on them in public.

The retainer agreement, appointing Burke Williams as special counsel for the district, is dated March 13, 2003, and was faxed to Leal for his approval on the same date. The board did not vote on the appointment of the two law firms until April 15.

"It's correspondence that predates the supposed decision by more than a month. Obviously, based on that, it looks like the decision was already made when there were no public deliberations,' Davis said.--

Pasadena Star News, July 8, 2003

D.C. Perspective - Southland corruption

Marc Sandalow; Sherry Bebitch Jeffe

San Diego is the latest Southern California municipality to face the glare of the media spotlight. In May, the FBI and San Diego police detectives raided the offices of three City Council members as part of a two-year probe into allegations that public officials had accepted bribes aimed at influencing them to water down the city's strip club regulations.

According the San Diego Union-Tribune, it is the city's biggest political corruption case since 1970 "when eight active and former members of the City Council were indicted on charges they took bribes from the Yellow Cab Co."

San Diego may have given us the Southland scandal du jour, but the city is not alone in being pummeled by charges of political corruption.

Last January, in the midst of federal and state investigations, South Gate recalled the city treasurer and his three allies on the City Council. In March, following a three-year county probe, Compton's former mayor, the city manager, and a majority of its City Council were arrested for misusing public funds. Two indicted council incumbents were defeated in April.

A concurrent federal investigation focused on transactions between Compton officials and Paul Richards, a veteran city councilman from nearby Lynwood. Richards was a longtime ally of former Mayor Omar Bradley, one of Compton's indicted officials. A recall against Richards has been mounted.

Within the past 12 months, the mayor of Carson was indicted for extortion, along with two former City Council members and a former mayor. And this May, the L.A. County district attorney began an investigation into electoral fraud there.

Maria S. Chacon, a Mexican political leader who helped Bell Gardens become the first all-Latino local government in Southern California, was indicted in January for allegedly engineering her appointment as city manager while she still served on the City Council. The case collapsed before trial.

What's going on?

The demographics of each community have shifted dramatically. Immigration, particularly among Latinos, has changed the face of these communities; longtime Anglo residents moved out, leaving behind politically unsophisticated or uninvolved new residents. As the immigrant population grew, the number of eligible voters declined, leaving a lower percentage of the community invested in its politics.

Southeast Los Angeles County communities are now among the county's poorest. Their economic slide began in the 1970s and '80s, when factories began closing down and the area lost blue-collar jobs. Under-participation and poverty can inhibit citizen oversight.

According to the city clerk's offices in the L.A. County municipalities, their local officials had no term limits. Nonetheless some cities had experienced significant political turnover through recalls, resignations and musical chairs.

The lack of media coverage of local government contributes. Most small community newspapers have folded and LA County's metropolitan dailies don't maintain outlying bureaus. L.A. television stations don't even pay much attention to Los Angeles government; local politics elsewhere is largely ignored - until a scandal erupts.

Proposition 13 may have had an impact on municipal politics because it shifted money and power away from local government. Why run for office to "do good," when there's little money available with which to do it? Might that tilt the candidate-selection process toward politicians whose goal is to get something else out of public office?

And then there is the cost of running for office, which can be significant even in small, relatively poor communities. The pressure to raise campaign funds can weigh heavily on local candidates who don't have or don't represent wealth.

Law enforcement is influential, too. Steve Cooley, L.A. County's first-term D. A., seems more aggressive than his predecessors in pursuing municipal corruption. And San Diego's new U.S. attorney, Carol Lam, has focused on the strip-club scandal.

Economics, demographics, political culture and participation are keys to stable local government. What counts is that, in the midst of the current budget crises and unrelenting urban problems, corruption probes distract public officials and can destabilize governments.

A recent San Diego Union-Tribune editorial crystallized the potential harm: "The inescapable risk is that the investigation will rekindle the public's cynicism toward city government."

And the harmful cycle of civic disengagement and political corruption will persist.

California Journal, July 1, 2003

A Scramble for Power, Patronage;
The Battle for Lucrative City Attorney Contracts in L.A. County's Heavily Latino Cities Has Resulted in Some Nasty Allegations. Ex-Partners in a Well-Connected Firm Are in the Center of the Storm

Ted Rohrlich, Times Staff Writer

As new groups scramble to consolidate power and patronage in Los Angeles County's small cities, the pushing and shoving usually takes place underneath public radar.

One exception involves a pair of lawyers who, adversaries complain, have not exactly been using the good government handbook.

The lawyers, Stanford-educated J. Arnoldo Beltran and Harvard-trained H. Francisco Leal, have played power politics in pursuit of lucrative municipal attorney contracts long held by white-dominated law firms, and now also sought by competing Latinos, in cities with new or changing Latino majorities in southeast Los Angeles County and the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys.

They have used the specter of recall campaigns as a threat against newly elected Latino officials if those officials do not vote to give them contracts, the officials or their associates charged in interviews with The Times. In one instance, a political ally of the lawyers, state Sen. Richard Polanco, allegedly did the threatening for them.

The lawyers and Polanco deny the charges.

There is nothing new about mixing recall politics and the pursuit of city attorney jobs, which are awarded in small cities by majorities of five-member city councils. In Los Angeles County's largest cities, city attorneys are elected.

Edward Dilkes, a veteran white municipal lawyer, recalled that in the 1970s, he was part of a generation of lawyers allied with tax conservatives and environmentalists who seized political power largely at the expense of older, pro-development whites who had settled in Southern California after World War II. Dilkes said he got the city attorney's job in Rosemead after advising such allies on how to run a recall there.

But the allegations lodged against Beltran, Leal and Polanco go beyond merely advising. They involve a form of coercion--specifically, promising to call off recalls in return for contracts.

Because of the rifts they have created, the allegations are significant for another reason: They provide an unusual opportunity to glimpse normally secretive operations of the political machine Polanco is building as it continues to gain and keep footholds in Los Angeles County's local governments.

Polanco, a Democrat who represents northeast Los Angeles in the state Senate, has become known as the leading architect of Latino empowerment in California largely through his successes in sponsoring Latino Democratic candidates for the state Legislature. But he has also dabbled in local politics. He acknowledges that he has possible county supervisorial ambitions when he is termed out of the Legislature in 2002.

As his political allies, lawyers Beltran and Leal have enjoyed considerable success in recent years. They have represented, at various times, eight Los Angeles County cities with contracts each worth hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. They also became lobbyists in Sacramento for some of the same cities, earning tens of thousands of dollars more.

But as participants in a volatile business where job security is only as solid as a three-member city council majority, they also experienced their share of defeats--losing some of these same contracts to other lawyers in a hotly competitive field.

This past summer, Beltran and Leal broke up their partnership, dividing the cities that their firm represented in a move that Leal attributed to stylistic and personality differences. Leal is smoother, thinner, and at 39, 10 years younger than Beltran. He is the diplomat. Beltran is more plain-spoken and direct.

The allegations of coercion lodged against them and Polanco involve only three cities--Bell Gardens, which Beltran still represents; the city of Commerce, which Leal's breakaway firm still represents; and Lynwood, from which the Beltran-Leal firm was fired.

In Bell Gardens, two council members facing recalls said that Beltran and Leal told them early this year that the recalls could stop if the law firm were retained.

Councilman Joaquin Penilla said Leal told him: "What does it take for me to get you not to fire us? What does it take? You want us to stop the recall tomorrow? We'll do it."

"Beltran then said, 'I have a lot of powerful friends, and they'll be very disappointed if we get fired,' " Penilla said.

Another of the council members, Salvador Rios, said that Beltran talked to him too.

"He says he can do anything to keep us in office, but don't fire him ," Rios said. "And I said, 'What could you do?' And he said, 'I could stop the recall just for you.' "

Beltran and Leal deny making the statements.

In Commerce, a different form of pressure was applied.

Leal admits he launched a retaliatory campaign to punish the councilman he held most responsible for firing him by targeting the councilman's half-brother, a school board member, for electoral defeat. Leal said he now regrets that move, which he attributes to letting his anger and hurt get the better of him.

He also wrote a petition to recall the councilman.

Then something strange happened.

Facing recall, the councilman, Hugo Argumedo, suddenly reversed himself and voted to rehire Leal.

Exactly what persuaded Argumedo to change his mind remains unclear since Argumedo would not explain himself for this article. But someone who knows him said Argumedo explained to him that he acted under duress, after he was told that the lawyers would dump big money into the recall campaign against him unless he changed his mind.

Leal and Beltran deny making any such threats.

In Lynwood, Polanco himself became involved.

A council member, Ricardo Sanchez, said that Polanco, the state Senate majority leader, told him that a recall attempt against Sanchez could be stopped if the firm were rehired.

Sanchez had broken away from Lynwood's first-ever Latino City Council majority, which had hired the firm, and formed a new majority with two black council members, which had fired Leal and Beltran.

Sanchez said Polanco told him, "We should work things out. The recall could die if we allowed these people to come back."

Sanchez said Polanco referred to Leal in their conversations as "his boy."

Polanco, whose public demeanor is perennially buttoned down, denied threatening Sanchez and denied referring to Leal as his "boy." "I don't talk like that," the senator said.

He said he met with Sanchez and other members of the Latino bloc, at Sanchez's request, to see if he could repair a breach between Sanchez and Leal and patch up the fractured Latino majority.

"I sit down and I tell them . . . 'Look, you guys are just getting started. You've got to learn to work together,' " Polanco said.

The senator said he has no financial ties to Beltran and Leal, other than that they have made campaign contributions to him, and merely supports them as qualified lawyers in a field that "has been closed to ethnic minority law firms."

Beltran and Leal's reputed involvement in recalls, and a perception that they are closely tied to Polanco, have contributed to an atmosphere of fear even in cities where there were no recalls. Some council members who are already known as dissidents were cautious about what they would say. "I don't feel comfortable being quoted by name in any article regarding them ," said one.

Bell Gardens

Bell Gardens is a 2 1/2-square-mile city of 40,000 in southeast Los Angeles County that was settled by whites fleeing the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and incorporated in 1961. Thirty years later, it became the cradle of the current Mexican American political ascension, when a Latino voting majority recalled a nearly all-white City Council.

Beltran, then a real estate lawyer active in politics, was involved in that recall effort through an organization called NEWS for America, whose "news" was that Mexican Americans no longer needed to wait and practice coalition-building with other ethnic groups since they were so numerous--N(orth), E(ast), W(est) and S(outh).

Two years after the Bell Gardens recall, its local leader, Maria Chacon, herself won election to the council, and Beltran became city attorney. Chacon put together her own three-member slate of council candidates to join her on the governing body in 1997.

Beltran backed this slate--which he knew, if successful, would contain his future employers--by asking political friends to contribute. There was nothing illegal or unusual about that. Some city attorneys or would-be city attorneys do not do it because they take a long view that contributions aimed at making friends also, unavoidably, make enemies of the friends' opponents. But Beltran's view was: "Unless and until the rules change, I'm going to help people who help me."

Shortly after the slate was elected, trouble erupted between its members and Chacon and that led to her effort to recall them.

As tensions mounted, former Bell Gardens Planning Commissioner Alfredo Martinez said that Beltran told him repeatedly that a recall was in the works against the slate, even before a petition was filed. "He said, 'These bozos don't believe we're going to recall them,' " Martinez said. Beltran denies making the remark.

Many issues were involved. One was the use of city funds to subsidize a single-family-home development to be built in part by TELACU, an acronym for The East Los Angeles Community Union. TELACU is an influential nonprofit community development corporation, containing profit-making subsidiaries, that has long been a mainstay in providing Polanco with financial and political support.

Financing for the Bell Gardens portion of TELACU's 53-house project, which extended into neighboring Commerce, was contingent on a $ 2-million Bell Gardens loan.

The City Council initially gave the project a green light. But Chacon's handpicked council members, David Torres, Salvador Rios and Joaquin Penilla, had second thoughts. They said they worried that the loan might not be repaid and that houses, which they said were to be sold for $ 150,000 or more, would prove too expensive for most Bell Gardens residents.

Beltran stepped in to try to save the deal, Rios said.

He said Beltran called him to arrange a private meeting between him, Polanco and the key developer, TELACU President David Lizarraga's son, Michael, who is TELACU's executive vice president.

Beltran denies setting up the meeting.

At the meeting, which Penilla also said he attended, Rios said Polanco pushed for the housing project, saying it would be good for the city.

Polanco, who early in his career worked for TELACU, acknowledged attending. "I was invited to give a recommendation . . . on the experience of TELACU as a housing developer and to share with them history about the organization . . . and I did, as I have done for others who I believe are capable and qualified and, if given the shot, will do a good job," he said.

Rios and Penilla remained unmoved, and together with Torres, voted against the project.

As a recall movement against all three gathered steam, they also moved to fire Beltran. Leal said he then stepped in to try to prevent the loss of a "million-dollar" account. "I'm the relationships guy," Leal said. "I can ask. I can plead. . . . Arnoldo Beltran can't."

Leal said he sought out council member Penilla to make "mostly a plea based on loyalty."

Leal, as well as Beltran, denies Penilla's account that Leal offered to call off the recall against Penilla in return for Penilla's vote.

Leal said it was absurd to imagine that he would say he could stop a recall inspired by Chacon, the most influential politician in town.

Rios, however, said that first Beltran and then Chacon herself made similar pitches to him.

Rios said Beltran told him: "I could stop the recall just for you."

Then Chacon joined their conversation and said, as Rios tells it: "If you don't fire Beltran, we can keep you in office."

Beltran denies saying he would call off a recall. But he acknowledged that he listened as Chacon said "basically, 'We want to work with you.' Obviously, the comment means, 'We don't want you out of office.' "

Chacon said: "I don't recall that at all."

Penilla and Rios, along with their ally, Torres, went ahead with their vote to fire Beltran.

Beltran responded by helping to raise money for their recall. "Some of my friends contributed," he said.

Polanco reported giving $ 1,000 through a campaign committee he controlled.

Saying that was his only involvement in the recall, he explained that he gave the money to help Chacon, who "has been a strong friend and supporter of all of us." By "all of us," he said he meant himself and Democratic state Sen. Martha Escutia, a lawyer whose legislative career he launched in 1992 by helping her win election to the state Assembly representing Bell Gardens and other southeast cities. He also included Democratic Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh, a former Polanco aide who became a law clerk and lobbyist for the Beltran and Leal firm, and then last year, Polanco's choice to replace Escutia in the Assembly.

Escutia's campaign records show that she, too, sent a $ 1,000-contribution to the Bell Gardens recall committee. She sent it to the address of the Beltran and Leal law firm in downtown Los Angeles.

The recall was successful.

The day after new City Council members were sworn in, Beltran was rehired.

The new members, who had campaigned on a pledge to approve the TELACU project, quickly did that too.

Commerce

Commerce is a small industrial city six miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles that boasts that it has no local property or utility taxes. Established in 1960 when industrialists and homeowners decided they would be better off incorporating than risking annexation, the city has more than 40,000 workers but only 12,000 residents.

Leal got the Commerce city attorney job in 1994 and kept it until 1997, when City Councilman Hugo Argumedo led a move to oust him. Leal attributed their squabble to personnel matters. There were also disagreements about a multimillion-dollar project known as Rail Cycle.

Rail Cycle was to involve construction of a giant facility in Commerce to remove recyclables from 8 million pounds of garbage that would be trucked daily into the city from other towns. The remainder of the waste would be put on trains bound for a landfill in the San Bernardino County desert.

The project's partners, Waste Management Inc. and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Co., hired a well-connected Latino political figure, Robert Morales, a longtime aide to former state Sen. Art Torres, the current state Democratic Party chairman, as their consultant. His job was to drum up community support for the project.

With Morales' help, Rail Cycle won a conditional use permit from the City Council in late 1992. But four years later, when Argumedo was running for council on a campaign against the project, major construction had still not begun. Rail Cycle's partners cited unforeseen delays in winning approval for their desert landfill.

Citing the inaction, Argumedo asked Leal for a legal opinion that he could use to revoke Rail Cycle's conditional use permit.

But Leal would not provide one. Leal said that he was concerned Rail Cycle could sue the city and win and advised that a better course was to wait, since the project might die of natural causes.

Argumedo would not be interviewed for this article, but associates described him as fed up with what he saw as Leal dragging his feet. He engineered Leal's firing and the hiring of a replacement who said that the city would be on solid legal ground stripping Rail Cycle of its permit.

Rail Cycle sued, and Leal's replacement, interim City Atty. Fernando Villa, won in court, persuading a judge that Rail Cycle could not reserve land indefinitely for future use. The company has appealed.

Leal and some of his associates, meanwhile, set out to punish Argumedo for having fired Leal.

Initially, they targeted Argumedo's half-brother, Hector Chacon, the effective head of Argumedo's local political family, who at the time was running for reelection to the school board of Montebello Unified, which also serves Commerce and nearby cities.

Leal and others associated with either Polanco or the law firm helped fund a campaign committee, called Parents for a Better Education, whose sole purpose was to defeat Hector Chacon.

Leal launched and directed the committee without Beltran's knowledge, both men say.

Polanco denies any connection with Rail Cycle or the committee.

The committee's records show that besides Leal, key donors included David J. Olivas, another lawyer who worked for the Beltran-Leal firm; George Castro, a financial manager who is Polanco's brother-in-law; George Pla, a longtime TELACU insider who heads Cordoba, a consulting firm; and Dario Frommer, then an attorney-lobbyist subcontractor for the Beltran-Leal firm. Frommer later became Gov. Gray Davis' appointments secretary, recommending to the governor who should get patronage jobs in state government, and is now an Assembly candidate from Los Angeles.

Chacon would not agree to be interviewed for this article.

However, his campaign consultant, Phil Giarrizzo, said his client had no doubt where his opposition was coming from. Chacon identified "the people who want to see me defeated because of my brother" as "Polanco, Leal," the consultant said.

Chacon, who had been the school board's top vote-getter, barely survived the challenge, finishing in third place with only three seats up for grabs.

Leal also wrote a petition to recall Argumedo.

He wrote it at the request of Edgar S. Miles, a Commerce activist who had reasons of his own to target Argumedo, according to both Miles and Leal.

Faced with the possibility of being recalled, Argumedo suddenly reversed himself on the question of Leal as city attorney and voted to rehire him.

Someone who knows Argumedo, who was interviewed on condition that his name not be published, said the councilman explained to him that the change of position was made under duress. "They told me, if we didn't take them back, they'd put $ 30,000 into the recall against me," the source quoted Argumedo as having said.

Leal and Beltran deny having made such a threat.

Leal suggested that Argumedo voted to rehire him for another reason. Leal said that the law firm that replaced his was costing more. The increased legal fees had become a big issue in the recall.

Who was behind the recall remains something of an official mystery.

Donors to the effort were not enumerated in a campaign report. Miles said that was because no contributor gave more than $ 100 and therefore names did not have to be disclosed under state law.

But not everyone believed that the recall was exclusively the grass-roots effort it seemed to be.

Bill Orozco, a political operative and one-time aide to former state Senate majority leader David Roberti, said he believed one of Roberti's successors, Polanco, was behind it.

He said he visited Polanco to try to persuade him to call off the recall, which had also targeted an Argumedo council ally.

"I told Polanco, 'Can we stop that recall taking place in Commerce?' " Orozco said. "And he said, 'No, I'm going to see that the two candidates are recalled.' He said, 'I didn't like what they did to people who are loyal to me , so I'm going to punish them and take them out of office.' "

The two candidates were indeed recalled, although Argumedo later won reelection.

Polanco said that his alleged conversation with Orozco never took place. "People are going to say things and do things and create things based on sour grapes, and I think I get credited at times for things that I have very little to do with," the senator said. In fact, he said: "I had nothing to do with that recall."

Lynwood

If Bell Gardens was ground zero in Latino takeovers of city councils from whites, Lynwood was ground zero in Latino takeovers from blacks.

A three-member Latino council slate wrested control of the city from black politicians in 1997, with the aide of an independent expenditure campaign financed by an out-of-town billboard company looking for business opportunities and managed by the political consultant-husband of state Sen. Escutia.

After the slate won, Leal sought the city attorney's job and said he asked Polanco to lobby on his behalf. Polanco acknowledges providing a reference.

Leal got the job but lasted--as did slate unity--less than a year.

Slate member Ricardo Sanchez had a series of disagreements with his fellow Latinos on the council, who subsequently launched a recall campaign against him. Sanchez then allied himself with two black council members, forming a new majority which named him mayor and fired Leal. Sanchez blamed the lawyer--Leal says inaccurately--for playing a role in the recall attempt.

Leal said he once again turned to Polanco for help.

Polanco paid Sanchez a visit.

There are two very different accounts of what happened next.

Sanchez and a friend whose account was read into the record at a public meeting said that the senator told Sanchez that the recall attempt could be stopped, if he came back into the fold and voted to rehire Leal and/or a Latino city manager who had also gotten the ax.

"He was saying, 'We should work things out. The recall could die,' " Sanchez said.

Leal and Polanco deny that Polanco made that statement. Polanco said he had nothing to do with the recall attempt in Lynwood. He said he spoke generally, as a peacemaker. "I sit down and I tell them . . . 'Look, you guys are just getting started. You've got to learn to work together.' "

Leal says he regards what happened in Lynwood as "a tragic story, where a Latino community has been empowered but has been unable to overcome differences for a greater good."

He portrays himself as something of an idealist, trying to help "well-intentioned, humble individuals who want to improve these cities," but don't have the education or experience to do so.

Sanchez is not buying this. He survived the recall attempt when a petition alleging numerous improprieties on his part was invalidated for lack of enough valid signatures. But he remains embittered. "I have a lot of hate," he said. "They made me look like the worst guy in the whole world."

Los Angeles Times, November 17, 1999
See article at: http://articles.latimes.com/1999/nov/17/news/mn-34544.

Cudahy City Council fires longtime City Manager George Perez

The council, voting 4 to 0 in closed session, fires the controversial Perez, who has run the tiny southeast Los Angeles County town for more than a decade. Longtime City Atty. David Olivas is also dismissed.

By Sam Quinones, Los Angeles Times

The Cudahy City Council, in a short, hastily called meeting Monday night, fired controversial longtime City Manager George Perez, who has run the tiny southeast Los Angeles County town for more than a decade.

The council, voting 4 to 0 in closed session, also fired longtime City Atty. David Olivas, replacing him with Arturo Fierro, a partner in a firm that also represents Chino and Rialto.

The council placed City Clerk Larry Galvan and Human Resources Director Crystal Hernandez on administrative leave. Galvan promptly filed his retirement papers, saying "it was a pleasure" to have worked for the city.

Olivas, too, said "it was an honor" to have worked for the city since 2000.

Perez did not attend the meeting. Councilman Juan Romo was absent.

The vote marks the latest political upheaval in the small communities that dot southeast L.A. County. Neighboring Bell has been rocked by a corruption scandal after revelations by The Times about the high salaries paid to eight former officials. The state Legislature is considering a bill that would disincorporate Vernon, where the former city manager was indicted last year. And Maywood is struggling to recover after disbanding its Police Department and contracting out many city services to Bell.

After announcing the changes, Cudahy Mayor Josue Barrios, elected to the council in 2009 and appointed mayor last week, said Perez was fired "for cause," though he gave no specifics.

Perez's contract with the city, signed in 2008, provides he be paid 18 months' salary — which began that year at $172,548 — if he is terminated for any reason other than the commission of a felony involving personal gain.

The move represented a rare show of independence on the part of a council that has gone along with Perez on virtually all issues. Councilman David Silva, in a conversation with a Times reporter, said he was looking for the votes to fire Perez, citing unspecified "legal troubles" the city faced.

Silva said council members feared standing up to Perez. His own dissatisfaction with Perez, Silva said, began several months ago, since Perez had moved from Cudahy to Hacienda Heights. He had no comment on Monday's actions. Still, sources knowledgeable about the efforts that led to Perez's firing said the council had discussed the move privately for months, going so far as to choreograph who would call for a vote on his employment and who would second the measure, and then how quickly the vote would take place.

"They've been talking about this for six months," said Gerardo Vallejo, a former administrative assistant to Perez who was fired a year ago and who said he was often in contact with council members.

Perez's rise came as part of the mid-1990s transition of the southeast county cities from white-majority city councils to ones that area predominantly Latino. He was appointed city manager while on the council, even though he had no education or background in public administration.

In 2001, Perez, who was raised in Cudahy, was the target of an investigation by the Public Integrity Division of the Los Angeles County district attorney's office into the process through which he was hired as city manager. The probe lasted two years and involved the search of both City Hall and Perez's Cudahy home.

The city hired six law firms and amassed hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills defending Perez, Olivas and other council members.

The investigation was eventually dropped for lack of evidence. Perez was never charged with any wrongdoing.

As city manager over the next decade, Perez gained a reputation for controlling public life in Cudahy. He also displayed remarkable attention to detail, calling residents who hadn't had their trash picked up and promising to have a truck swing by.

Contested elections were rare. Council members usually had no opposition — as in this month's municipal elections — and voted 5 to 0 on virtually every issue. In 2007 and 2009, the city held its first contested elections since the 1990s.

Luis Garcia, a former city employee who in 2007 and 2009 ran unsuccessfully against Perez's then-council allies, says Perez used city workers to campaign against him. Garcia's home was firebombed with a Molotov cocktail in 2009 — an event Garcia captured on video. No one has been charged in that incident.

"This is a day for celebration," Garcia said Monday. "Hopefully, this is the start of encouraging other people in my community to get involved in the democratic system and not fear being attacked the way I was attacked."

Los Angeles Times, March 29, 2011


South Gate City Attorney's Aides Donated To Campaigns

By Sharon Hormell, Staff writer

When he applied for the job of city attorney in 1993, Arnold Alvarez-Glasman promised to avoid involvement in South Gate politics.

But last year, three of his paralegals and his secretary donated $5,750 to the campaign committees of Mayor Albert Robles and Councilman Bill Martinez.

Because the campaign finance reports that Robles and Martinez filed with local and state governments did not accurately list the donors' occupations and their employers' name, as state law requires, it is not apparent from the public documents that the donors worked in Alvarez-Glasman's private Montebello law office.

Robles, whose losing 1994 campaign for the state Board of Equalization received $4,000 from the workers, and Martinez, whose City Council campaign received $1,750, could not be reached for comment despite repeated calls requesting interviews. There is no indication that Alvarez-Glasman got anything from the council in return for the contributions his workers sent.

Alvarez-Glasman's mid-1993 resume seeking the South Gate post said, ''Mr. Glasman knows that a good city attorney will be sensitive to the pressures of the elected officials, yet will avoid playing politics or counting votes''

Asked if his office workers' donations to Robles and Martinez might make it appear that he was politically favoring the pair, Alvarez-Glasman likened the contributions to those that might be made by a city employees' union.

''There is no inappropriate activity whatsoever. Campaign contributions are everyone's First Amendment right,'' he said.

According to campaign reports, Alvarez-Glasman himself did not donate to any South Gate council members last year. He said he made a donation in his own name of more than $100 to Robles' council campaign committee in March.

In January, the council gave Alvarez-Glasman a 25 percent raise, increasing his hourly fee from $100 to $125 per hour to handle city and redevelopment issues.

At that rate, he still earns less than the average rate of $145 per hour charged by his predecessor, William Rudell at the firm of Richards, Watson and Gershon. Depending on the complexity of the issue and the attorney assigned, South Gate was paying Rudell's firm $105 to $250 per hour. The council changed city attorneys in 1993 as an economizing move, several council members said.

State law says candidates who receive $100 or more from a donor must truthfully disclose the donor's full name and address, occupation and employer. Candidates and their treasurers sign the reports, swearing under penalty of perjury that they have used all responsible diligence in preparing the forms, said Fair Political Practices Commission spokeswoman Jeannette Turvill.

Failing to disclose the real occupations and employers of donors is an illegal practice informally known as campaign money laundering. The Fair Political Practices Commission can levy fines of $2,000 per offense against the donor and recipient, or turn cases over to the District Attorney's Office for criminal prosecution.

The FPPC does not confirm, discuss or deny ongoing investigations, so Turvill would not say if the agency is researching South Gate council campaigns or Robles' failed 1994 state Board of Equalization campaign.

However, South Gate City Clerk Nina Banuelos said an investigator from the FPPC had requested Robles' council campaign finance records dating back to 1991 as part of an audit of all candidates in the Board of Equalization race.

''People have the right to know that the companies and their employees are supporting a particular candidate,'' Turvill said. ''If the disclosure (report) is not accurate, that can be a deliberate attempt to defraud the voters.''

On the required forms, Alvarez-Glasman's three paralegals were listed as working at three different paralegal or secretarial services bearing their last names and their home addresses in Chino, Chino Hills and Arcadia, although none holds an official county permit to do business as those firms.

The secretary, who lives in Monterey Park, was identified as working at Alvarez-Glasman's firm, but her occupation was misidentified as an attorney on the campaign disclosure form.

Two of the paralegals could not be reached for comment despite repeated calls to their homes and office. The secretary and the third paralegal said in separate interviews that they made the donations voluntarily and were not reimbursed, but each declined to discuss the circumstances or reasons for writing the checks.

Alvarez-Glasman said he knew of the donations by his workers, ''probably, in passing, they may have mentioned it,'' but stressed, ''I had nothing to do with that, and it is up to you to decide if it is a coincidence.''

Because he is also a Montebello City Council member, his office often receives mailed requests to donate to political campaigns, and it is up to each individual to decide whether and how much to give, he said. Those who donate receive no benefit and incur no penalty if they don't give, he said.

No employee is reimbursed for a political donation, he said, declining to say how much he pays his secretary and paralegals.

According to campaign finance reports, none of his office staff has donated to any sitting council members of Montebello, where Alvarez-Glasman has held office since 1985, or Pomona, the other community he represents as city attorney.

Long Beach Press-Telegram, June 20, 1995

Caught In A Battle For Survival;
Special Report -- Bell Gardens' Most Prominent Politician Helped Wrest Control Of The City From Whites And Established Latino Power. But Former Allies Are Now Denouncing Her...

Hector Tobar, Times Staff Writer
Los Angeles Times, September 6, 1998


In Bell Gardens, home to 44,000 people, one woman dominates the community's political life. To some, she is a heroine, a leader in the movement for Latino power. To others, she is a bully and a demagogue who is single-handedly destroying city government.

Her name is Maria S. Chacon. She is a Mexican immigrant from Chihuahua who became an American citizen just a few years ago.

Nearly everyone agrees that Chacon helped orchestrate the 1991 revolution that swept out the City Council's old guard. Now, after years filled with embarrassingly wacky public meetings and near-riots at City Hall, many of Chacon's old allies have had enough.

"Councilwoman Chacon is a cancer on this city!" resident Gabriel Velasco said during the Aug. 24 council meeting, a typically raucous gathering punctuated by hissing, cheers and bilingual catcalls. That meeting, like others before, ended with police escorting Mayor David Torres and his council allies out a side exit lest they be physically attacked by the Chacon supporters at the front door.

A similar kind of disorder has spread throughout the Bell Gardens body politic since the revolution, with persistent allegations of corruption, nepotism and general incompetence at City Hall. Bell Gardens has become the laughingstock of suburban Los Angeles County government, prompting more than a few residents to wonder what has gone wrong.

"I don't like this for my city," Betty Avila told the council that August night, echoing the sentiments of many. "This is a farce."

Why is Bell Gardens mired in conflict when neighboring, once largely white cities like South Gate have made a relatively smooth transition to Latino power?

A look at the historical record shows that the self-righteousness of the leaders who took over Bell Gardens' city government in the early 1990s was corrupted by an undercurrent of self-interest.

Some of the leaders were landlords with years of gripes against City Hall. Their movement launched a vengeful, wholesale housecleaning of Bell Gardens' bureaucracy, dooming the city to years of political chaos.

All five members of the current City Council cut their political teeth in the movement Chacon helped start. In fact, no Latino has ever been elected to the Bell Gardens City Council without Chacon's support, including the three members who are today her declared enemies.

"It's been devastating and painful," says Chacon, "for me to see that people you think you know, people you supported, can turn their backs on you so quickly."

Few of her former allies raised any protest when Police Chief Fredrick Freeman took the extraordinary step of walking into Chacon's City Hall office Aug. 12 and taking her into custody for allegedly inciting a disturbance during a council meeting two nights earlier.

"The news of her arrest pleased many people," said former Mayor Frank Duran, who was elected to the council in 1992 with Chacon running his campaign. "She deserves to be arrested and dragged out."

Old Council Accused of Anti-Latino Efforts

Once, nearly every Latino in Bell Gardens was united in a cause.

In 1990, Latinos made up 87% of the population in the self-proclaimed "Hub of Progress." Yet no Latino had ever been elected to the council.

The revolution that would change that started at the nearby Huntington Park courthouse, where Bell Gardens' Municipal Court cases are heard. It was there that a number of landlords, including Maria Chacon, felt that they were being hounded by the city to improve their properties.

Chacon would help organize those property owners into the core of a movement.

"Division 5 in the courthouse was full of property owners who had a dream just like everyone else," Chacon recalled. "They came to this country to buy a piece of land, only to be persecuted by city officials . Each one of us thought they were alone."

Bell Gardens officials had charged Chacon with multiple code violations, court records show, after she ignored an order to improve conditions at her property on Gallant Street for five months. She pleaded guilty to one violation and was ordered to perform 200 hours of community service.

"She was abusing her tenants," said former Bell Gardens building inspector Carlos Levario, who said he worked on the case. "They were living in substandard conditions."

Another landlord who would become a leader in the movement, George T. Deitch, was cited for vermin infestations at one of his apartment complexes after his election to the council.

Housing in Bell Gardens had deteriorated, in part, because of overcrowding in the city. During the 1980s, Latino immigration fueled a 24% population increase. In 1991 the council--then made up of five whites--approved a plan to lower density by reducing the number of apartment units. The plan to rezone 3,000 properties would also have effectively limited construction of new apartments.

Opposition to the rezoning plan united the landlords and their Latino tenants, allowing the landlords to embrace the rhetoric of ethnic politics. If there were fewer apartments, the argument went, there would be fewer Latinos.

Chacon organized a drive to recall the white council members. It was soon known as the No Rezoning Committee. She charged the council with trying to empty Bell Gardens of Latinos.

"The sleeping giant has awakened," Chacon told The Times in December 1991. "The council has lost touch with the city. They are arrogant. . . . They are racist."

Four white council members were ousted. Four new council members were elected--with Chacon, not yet a U.S. citizen and thus unable to run, acting as their campaign manager. In 1994, Chacon won a council seat and eventually became mayor.

Once in power, the No Rezoners purged not only top-level city administrators, but also code inspectors and other lower officials, creating what detractors describe as a climate of intimidation that continues to define politics in the city.

The new council's alleged abuses of power are outlined in a series of lawsuits filed by former employees.

Former building inspector Levario alleged that Chacon and fellow council members Ramiro Morales, Rodolfo Garcia and George Deitch demoted him because he "reported the property of council members as needing rehabilitation." Bell Gardens paid Levario an undisclosed amount to settle the lawsuit.

Samuel Macias, a former public works supervisor, claimed in another lawsuit that council members targeted him for retaliation when he refused to hire one of their supporters for a city job.

Macias' suit also detailed an encounter with Chacon at City Hall, just after a group of Bell Gardens residents had filed a recall petition against her. Chacon wanted to know where Macias stood on the recall, "strongly implying that if he did not politically support her, his job would be in jeopardy," the suit states.

Macias was later laid off--for budgetary reasons, according to the city. Bell Gardens eventually paid more than $ 200,000 to settle his lawsuit.

Chacon denied Macias' allegations.

"What would I need his help for?" she asked dismissively.

Chacon, who will stand for reelection next year, sees herself as an ever-vigilant bulwark against corruption, a woman dismayed to have launched so many political careers only to be betrayed by her lesser, selfish allies. "It feels good to empower people. I believe that we have to do it," she says.

Decades of Experience Destroyed, Critics Say

In all, Bell Gardens has agreed to pay about $ 2.5 million to at least 10 former employees who claim they were unfairly dismissed or demoted after the No Rezoners came to power, city officials say. Among the former officials receiving settlements are two city managers, a city clerk, a police chief, a personnel director and a recreation director.

The dismissals of about 20 city workers--and the recall of all but one council member--effectively wiped out decades of government experience, critics say. Bell Gardens' new leaders were rookies without anyone they trusted to guide them.

Soon they found themselves the subject of much unwanted publicity.

Councilman Garcia came under fire for taking personal loans from city bureaucrats. Mayor Josefina Macias threw a chair at Councilman Duran during a closed session. And the only historic landmark in the city fell into disrepair when its longtime caretaker was fired and replaced by a councilman's nephew.

Later, Chacon's sister, Rosa Cobos, received city-allocated funding for a computer education center she operates. Many more council relatives were appointed to city commissions.

"They think it's the way it is in Mexico, that when you get in power, you bring in your friends," said one high-ranking Latino official active in Democratic Party politics, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "They got rid of people who were not going to be 'yes' people. In doing that, they lost a lot of good administrators."

'We Realized We Were Being Used as Puppets'

Angered by the firings and by cuts in youth programs, former Councilwoman Rosa Hernandez helped lead a drive to recall Chacon and Morales. Even members of the Bell Gardens Police Department joined the effort, some marching in support of the recall outside City Hall.

Chacon responded by organizing boisterous demonstrations at the council meeting.

Carlos Daniel Lopez, once the president of a Bell Gardens soccer league, said Chacon asked him to attend council meetings with dozens of his young players.

"We would go to the meetings and shout, 'Chacon! Chacon!' " Lopez said. The soccer players felt beholden to Chacon because she had persuaded the council to pay for their uniforms, Lopez said. But he said he soon found himself at protests that had little to do with his soccer league--including some at the Montebello Unified School District, which serves Bell Gardens children.

"We realized we were being used as puppets," Lopez said. "It was pure manipulation."

Finally, Lopez told Chacon he had had enough. Chacon, he says, reminded him about the free uniforms and the players' debt to her. At the next council meeting, Lopez denounced Chacon and dumped dozens of soccer uniforms in front of the dais, an act of public humiliation for which, he says, Chacon never forgave him.

A federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Lopez outlines his version of what happened next. With their children watching, Lopez and his wife were arrested and hauled off to jail for allegedly embezzling $ 700. Lopez's suit alleges that Chacon, then the mayor, had used her power to order the police investigation. A judge later dismissed the embezzlement charges.

"She is an arrogant and despotic woman," Lopez says of Chacon.

Chacon calls Lopez a malagradecido, or ingrate. Of his charges, she says, "That is not true. He's going to have to go to court to prove that."

In 1997, three new council members--David Torres, Joaquin Penilla and Salvador Rios--were elected to the council, supported by Chacon under the banner of the No Rezoning Committee. (The three defeated incumbents were themselves Chacon allies who had broken with her.)

But Torres said Chacon also turned against him and the other new council members soon after they were sworn in, when the council met to decide which of their members would take the largely ceremonial position of mayor.

"I was elected and Chacon got angry," Torres said. "She started to threaten me."

Penilla said that after he joined the council, Chacon "told me, 'I put you in here. You'll do what I say or get out.' "

Chacon and council ally Morales have fired back with allegations of petty corruption.

Councilman Rios, they say, took $ 1,650 in city funds to help pay for his honeymoon trip to San Diego. Rios did not return calls seeking comment. City Manager Nabar Martinez said Rios has returned the money to the city.

Said Chacon: "I stand up against corruption, so I am in the way of a lot of people who do bad things."

Chants of 'Recall!' Are All Too Familiar

Chacon and Morales have denounced the mayor and the council majority for allegedly planning to restrict churches in residential neighborhoods and for raising the council's remuneration from a $ 350 monthly travel allowance to $ 31,000 a year in salary and stipends.

The enmity between the former allies reached a climax at the Aug. 10 council meeting.

Cobos, Chacon's sister, rose to speak during the public comment part of the meeting, then refused to cede the microphone. Mayor Torres abruptly adjourned the meeting. Police cleared the council chambers.

Although the details of what happened next are in dispute, both sides agree that there was a confrontation between Chacon and her husband, Jesse, on one hand and Police Chief Freeman on the other.

Two days later, Chacon and her husband were arrested and charged with disturbing the peace and obstructing a police officer. The charges are pending.

The heated debate resumed at the next council meeting, which began with the council majority excluding Chacon and Morales from a closed session--a move that prompted Morales to compare Mayor Torres to the Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz. Once the public session got underway, Chacon and Torres engaged in an hourlong verbal wrestling match.

"Mrs. Chacon, you're out of order," Torres repeated again and again.

"Mayor Torres, you're not my father!" Chacon snapped back.

The meeting ended with Chacon's supporters in the audience--which included about two dozen young people from a neighborhood youth center--yelling a chant that has become all too familiar in Bell Gardens.

"Recall! Recall! Recall!"

True to their word, a few days later Chacon and her supporters filed papers to recall the council majority they had put in office.


Program Benefits; Mayor Buys In--Literally--To Aid Plan for First-Time Home Buyers

By Sharon Hormell

SOUTH GATE, Calif--The city has a kitty of $1.12 million to lend interest-free to 25 first-time home buyers, and the short list of people who seized the opportunity includes a bachelor high school science teacher, a two-income family of five and Mayor Albert Robles.

"It's a great program," said Robles, 29, whose $28,000 junior high school teacher's salary plus $10,000 mayor's pay qualified him as just the kind of moderate-income, first-time home buyer the program was intended to help when he and the rest of the City Council approved it last July.

He has opened escrow on a $140,000 townhouse on Karmont Avenue on the city's east end. If his loan application is approved, he stands to get a no-interest "silent second" mortgage of up to $40,000 that need not be repaid until the home is sold, transferred or occupied by somebody else.

Thus, the price of his new home would be reduced by the amount of the silent second mortgage, making it easier for him to qualify for a regular bank mortgage to finance the balance.

There is enough money in the program, depending on the needs of each borrower, to fund about 16 loans of up to $40,000 for moderate-income home buyers.

That would describe Mark Trepanier, to whom teaching is like a religious calling.

Although the wages are higher than the priesthood's traditional vow of poverty, his salary as a South Gate High School science teacher just wasn't enough to buy a house.

Until now. As one of a handful of moderate-income people to qualify for "silent second" mortgages, he was able to buy a house in South Gate's Hollydale neighborhood.

"I wanted something with two bedrooms, nothing fancy, just something with a nice yard, because I like gardening," said the 36-year-old bachelor, who lives with his cat, Booger.

Now, as he waits for the spring planting season, he plans his garden and enjoys his newfound status as a homeowner.

"I really feel like I'm part of the community," he said, "a citizen of South Gate."

Another nine loans of up to $50,000 are destined for low-income households like that of Griselda and Rafael Rodriguez.

Their home ownership plans seemed dashed when an unexpected third pregnancy ate up their savings.

But Rafael suggested they apply for the home buyer assistance program he saw reported in a newspaper.

Griselda told him, "That's a bunch of baloney; I don't believe it," but they applied anyway, and were accepted into the program for low-income, first-time home buyers, eligible for a silent second mortgage of up to $50,000.

To house their three growing boys, they found a two-bedroom house with a den that could be converted into a third bedroom about a block from the Tweedy Boulevard commercial district. They moved in Dec.4.

"The first thing we did was give thanks to the Lord, and we laughed, remembering the first time I told my husband, 'No, no, and no,' " Griselda Rodriguez said. "Because now he says, 'You see, you see?' And he's happy."

Robles and the city's four other council members approved the program last July, which increases by a fraction of 1 percent the number of South Gate homeowners.

The Community Development Department drafted the loan program to comply with state laws requiring that one-fifth of the proceeds of the Redevelopment Agency be spent increasing the city's stock of low- to moderate-income housing.

South Gate's entire $680,000 housing set-aside account is being spent on the Homeownership Assistance Program, along with $440,000 in federal money earmarked for first-time home buyers.

City Attorney Arnold Alvarez-Glasman said that even though Robles voted to create the home ownership assistance program, he was free to apply for its benefits as long as he was treated like every other applicant.

"There isn't a conflict (of interest) if the mayor is participating in this process," Alvarez-Glasman said. "He's having to go through all the same hoops as everyone else."

Although the program's money will be distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, no qualified person who has applied has been denied money yet, said Community Development Director Andy Pasmant.

Several people have been disqualified because their earnings are too low, their pre-existing debt is too high, or their credit record is poor.

The intent of the program is to increase the number of owner-occupied houses in the city, Pasmant said.

Although 25 is a very small percentage of the 22,000 households in the city, "it's 25 more than last year," Pasmant said.

Nearly half of South Gate's dwellings are owner-occupied, about the same percentage as the county average, the 1990 U.S. Census said, but that rate is lower than the national average of 64 percent and the state average of 56 percent.

The median value of South Gate owner-occupied homes is about $161,900 in this 86,284-population city, where the median household income is about $27,279.

Chicago Tribune, February 5, 1995

Political Allies at Issue in Bid to Unseat Soto; Campaign: The Councilwoman Says Her Opponents Want to Return Control to the Old Boy Network. Challengers Question Soto's Ties to Ousted Councilman C. L. (Clay) Bryant

By Mike Ward, Times Staff Writer

POMONA -- In the midst of her first reelection campaign, Councilwoman Nell Soto says she's still a valiant enemy of the Old Boy Network.

Her opponents in the March 5 election, however, seem more concerned about her friends, who they say include special interest contributors and recalled Councilman C. L. (Clay) Bryant.

Neither the Old Boy Network nor Bryant is on the ballot, of course, but they have emerged as the prime campaign targets.

Soto, 64, said her opponents are bent on returning Pomona to the control of the people who nearly ruined it, the group she has dubbed the Old Boy Network.

"The people who are supporting my opponents are those people who have been kicked out of City Hall, the old leeches, the old hangers-on, the people who have gotten rich off Pomona taxpayers," she said.

Meanwhile, Robert Jackson, a 33-year-old teacher who has become the most aggressive campaigner among her three opponents, said the removal of Soto from office is the logical follow-up to the recall of Bryant, her political ally on the council who was ousted in June.

"She was and is the other side of the Clay Bryant coin," Jackson said. "We must rid ourselves, as we did of Clay Bryant, of those responsible for the turmoil this city has faced."

Both Jackson and another candidate, Timothy Smith, a 41-year-old air-conditioning technician, have accused Soto of catering to special interests. Smith said Soto has given the city "the worst representation in recent history" and "has been a constant source of embarrassment."

Jackson and Smith are appealing to the same block of voters: those who advocated Bryant's recall. Bryant was targeted in part for his role in effecting wholesale change at City Hall, including the firing of a city administrator and police chief and the ouster of other key officials.

The fourth candidate in the race, Reyes Rachel Madrigal, a 57-year-old associate professor at Mt. San Antonio College, is trying to remain above the fray. She has avoided criticizing Soto directly, saying only that "the image of Pomona has suffered as a result of the infighting that has occurred."

Madrigal and Soto are Latinas in a district whose population of about 22,000 is estimated at 43% Latino.

Soto won election to the council four years ago and in 1989 forged a "new majority" with Bryant and Councilman Tomas Ursua that remolded city government before the coalition fell apart, first with a split between Ursua and Bryant, and then with Bryant's recall.

Soto said the political turmoil has produced positive changes, including a new city staff that is more responsive to citizens. "Sure, there's been a lot of bickering and you know why?" she said. "Because change is hard to come by. . . . Change is hard to accept by those who have been in power for the last 30, 40 or 50 years."

Soto was born in Pomona and counts her great-grandson as the ninth generation of her family to live in the city. As she was growing up, she said, Pomona was a segregated town, with Latinos barred from the municipal pool except on days set aside for them, exiled to a special section at movie theaters and excluded from living north of Holt Avenue.

Discrimination and growing up poor shaped her politics and her attitude toward the Pomona establishment. Active in the Democratic Party most of her life, she helped her husband, Phil, win election to the state Assembly in the 1960s, and she ran campaigns for other politicians before winning a seat herself on the Pomona City Council in 1987.

She knows many city officials throughout the region because of her job as local government and community affairs representative for the Southern California Rapid Transit District. Through her contacts in city government, she recruited the current Pomona city administrator, Julio Fuentes, and other newcomers who have filled key positions in the city.

Soto lists among her achievements the formation of a community group to fight gangs, the initiation of a volunteer mounted patrol and a mobile substation for the Police Department, and the installation of new playground equipment in neighborhood parks in her district.

Both Jackson and Smith have accused her of siding with special interests, such as billboard companies and gambling club promoters, and have criticized her vote for a motel project on Holt Avenue.

Jackson has strongly criticized Soto for accepting nearly $3,000 in campaign contributions from the billboard industry and $1,000 each from City Atty. Arnold Glasman and Miller & Schroeder, a bond consulting firm employed by the city.

Jackson said the donations represent a conflict of interest because Soto voted to hire Glasman and the bond firm and has been backing a proposal that would allow billboard companies "to keep their dilapidated eyesores in our city."

Soto said there is no conflict of interest because she promises nothing in return for contributions. For example, she said, she has never voted to increase the number of billboards but favors allowing sign companies to replace some aging billboards with new ones on the outskirts of Pomona.

Both Jackson and Smith have assailed Soto for voting last year to put a measure on the ballot to legalize card clubs. The council withdrew the measure after a barrage of protests from residents.

Soto said her opponents have wrongly accused her of favoring casino gambling. Soto said she voted to put the measure on the ballot only because she believes residents have the right to make that decision. She said revenue from card clubs, such as those in the City of Commerce and Gardena, could produce enough money to enable Pomona to cut or eliminate its unpopular and relatively high tax on utility bills.

Smith and Jackson said they strongly oppose card clubs in Pomona.

Jackson, a veteran of the Marine Corps, holds a teaching credential from Cal State Dominguez Hills and has lived in the city for 12 years. He teaches at a Pomona junior high school.

Smith, who has lived in Pomona 19 years, said he offers voters independence without ties to any group. "I think we're ready in Pomona for a new politics," he said.

Madrigal, who has lived in Pomona more than 30 years, teaches Spanish at Mt. San Antonio College. Her varied background includes work on farms and factories and as a teacher and school administrator. She holds a doctorate in education from Claremont Graduate School.

She said the current council has been quarrelsome and indecisive. She said she can make difficult decisions and would work diligently to bring harmony to the council.

The 1st Council District takes in the central portion of the city west of Garvey Avenue and south of the San Bernardino Freeway. The March 5 election will be the first in Pomona in which voters choose council members by district. If no candidate receives a majority of the votes, the top two finishers will meet in a runoff April 16.

Los Angeles Times, February 17, 1991

School board terminates contract with legal firm

By Marisela Santana, Staff Writer

LYNWOOD - The school board has voted 3-2 not to renew its contract with the Leal and Trejo law firm as the district's counsel.

School board members Rachel Chavez, Guadalupe Rodriguez and Maria Lopez voted against renewing the contract, while school board President Jose Luis Solache and board clerk Alfonso Morales voted in favor of retaining Leal and Trejo.

Chavez, who opposed the hiring of Leal & Trejo from the beginning, said she never felt that the firm was knowledgeable enough to guide a school district as large as Lynwood's.

The firm was originally hired by Lopez, Rodriguez, Solache and Morales, Chavez said, but the time has come when "you realize, or you wonder who the firm is working for - the school district or the superintendent."

Rodriguez and Lopez have recently questioned the firm's bills, asking for line-item expense reports, but have yet to get the answers they sought. Rodriguez said she has been concerned for months about the firm's high billing statements. Lopez agreed with Rodriguez.

Chavez said she is willing to work with the law firm while the school district draws up an request for proposal, which according to the superintendent, is still being worked on.

In hiring a new law firm, Chavez said she would prefer the school board consider one that strictly caters to school districts.

The longtime school board member said she believes that Leal & Trejo have contributed to school board members' campaigns and said that has no business in the school district.

"That's what got the city in trouble," she said.

Sources at the school district have said that Superintendent Dhyan Lal is hoping the upcoming school board election, which will be joined with the city's general election on Nov. 6, brings a change in the board, one that will allow Leal & Trejo to stay on the job.

Lal denied that accusation.

He said he only wants what is best for the children and that it is not true that the law firm has catered to his wishes, rather than those of the district.

"They don't work for me, they work for the school district, but I have the last word," Lal said. "So they have to work with me."

Before casting their 3-2 vote, school board members discussed Leal and Trejo's $1.2 million budget for the 2006-07 fiscal year.

"This type of money is outrageous," Chavez said. "That type of money has a very big impact on our budget. It's money that we could use for the children."

The law firm at one point, Lopez said, had a cap of $500,000, but "they've gone overboard," she said.

A lot of times, Lopez said, the superintendent and the attorneys would leave school board members out of the loop.

"That's just my personal view," she said. "Our job as a school board and the job of whoever is our district counsel has the job of protecting the district's funds, and keeping expenditures down, not the other way around."

Whether the superintendent believes he has the last word or not, it's the school board members who are elected - by the community - to represent them, Lopez said.

"It's all about transparency," she said. "Both the superintendent and the attorneys are supposed to keep us informed of what's going on. We're supposed to be working together, not being left in the dark about issues that are costly."

Aside from the firm's $1.2 million budget for the 2006-07 fiscal year, the Leal & Trejo firm also serves as the district's lobbying representatives in Sacramento, for which it receives $3,500 a month. That contract has been in effect for three years as well and according to Chavez, is a separate fee from the legal fees.

Chavez was the only one who voted against hiring general counsel for that job, too. This was the first time in three years that Chavez was joined by other members of the school board in voting against renewing the Leal and Trejo contract.

Fernando Leal served as the city of Lynwood's attorney for several years in the 1990s under a former partnership with former City Attorney Arnoldo Beltran. Beltran was removed as the city attorney earlier this year.

Several calls to the Leal and Trejo offices in downtown Los Angeles were not returned by presstime and Trejo could not be reached on his cell phone for comment.

School board President Solache also could not be reached for comment.

The school board did agree to grant Leal and Trejo a temporary contract, until it hires a new law firm.

The three school board members said they expect the requests for proposals for a new law firm to go out soon.

Los Angeles Wave, October 11, 2007

Carson will keep its city attorney

CITY COUNCIL: Five-month search ends with members unanimously voting to keep the Aleshire & Wynder firm By Gene Maddaus, Staff Writer

The Carson City Council has decided to keep its current city attorney, ending a controversial five-month search for a new law firm.

The council voted 5-0 on Wednesday night to hang on to Aleshire & Wynder, which has represented the city since 2003.

The firm proved to have a loyal base of support among seniors who live in mobile home parks and depend on the city attorney to enforce rent control. Mobile home residents loudly protested any attempt to change firms, and ultimately their wishes were heeded.

"I think they listened to their constituents. I think that's what brought them around," said Sybil Brown, a leader in the mobile home community. "I am very pleased with their decision."

The search for a new firm was marred by the disclosure in March that associates of attorney Francisco Leal had made $3,800 in contributions to Councilman Mike Gipson last fall.

Leal had urged Gipson to put the attorney's contract out to bid, according to a source who attended a meeting between the two at the Sizzler restaurant in Carson last November.

Leal dropped out of the running for the city attorney job after the Daily Breeze disclosed details of the meeting and the contributions.

The bid process continued, and the council ultimately conducted interviews with representatives from six firms, including several large, reputable firms that do a lot of municipal work in Southern California.

But Aleshire & Wynder underbid all of the competitors, with an average hourly rate of $173.

The other firms offered hourly rates from $206 to $271, which made them unattractive options in a year when the city is facing a $5 million deficit.

The council also heard from a slew of mobile home park residents, who appreciated Wynder's work defending the city from park owner lawsuits and feared that changing firms would jeopardize their interests.

"We were taken a little bit by surprise by the show of support for the existing city attorney," said Tom Webber, a partner at Goldfarb & Lipman, which competed for the contract. "We didn't realize it was such a controversial issue."

The council majority - Gipson, Lula Davis-Holmes, and Elito Santarina - repeatedly defended the decision to seek bids by arguing that Wynder had been hired without due diligence in 2003. Mayor Jim Dear was part of the subcommittee that hired Wynder initially, and the council majority indicated they believed Wynder was too close to Dear.

The council members also expressed concerns that Aleshire & Wynder did not have enough minorities on its payroll, an issue in a city that is largely black, Latino and Filipino.

Councilman Harold Williams said affirmative action had come up in the interview with Aleshire & Wynder, and the firm had committed to finding a black male to work at the firm.

"I'm looking for people who look like me," Williams said.

Wynder said the firm had expressed its commitment to diversity, but said he had not agreed to a particular quota. He also noted that half the firm's employees are female and one of the partners is Latino.

Dear and Williams voted against changing attorneys from the beginning.

They ultimately got their way on Wednesday night, when the majority backed down under heavy pressure from the mobile home residents and chose to support Wynder.

"The people of Carson dodged a bullet with last night's vote," Dear said Thursday.

"I think the council members were realizing they were making a big mistake in even considering bringing in another law firm."

Santarina said the bid process was worthwhile.

"I was given the chance to really study this whole thing," he said.

"Now it's very legitimate. It's very transparent."

Wynder said he, too, believed that submitting a bid was worth the effort.

"I think it was a very public process, and I think the council handled it with great skill and ability," he said.

Daily Breeze, June 5, 2008
See http://www.dailybreeze.com/ci_9496737

Judge Sets Deadline for Objections to Review of Seized South Gate Material

By Kimberly Edds, Staff Writer

Lawyers trying to block the District Attorney's Office from examining documents seized in a corruption probe of the city of South Gate will have until June 7 to file their objections, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge said Friday.

All the material seized in the searches remains under seal, including six to eight boxes of documents taken from the downtown law offices of Albright, Yee & Schmit and 6,600 pages of information taken from offices in South Gate City Hall.

The District Attorney's Office executed warrants on 15 locations, including the Spring Street office of the Metropolitan News-Enterprise, on May 2 in connection with the probe. In addition to their city offices, the homes of city Treasurer Albert Robles, City Attorney Salvador Alva, Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba, Vice Mayor Raul Moriel, Councilwoman Maria Benavides and acting City Manager Dennis Young were searched, attorney George B. Newhouse Jr. of Thelen Reid & Priest said.

The city attorney's office and those of the Albright and Thelen Reid firms were among four law offices searched. The home and offices of Eduardo Olivo, special counsel to the city of South Gate, were also searched, as was Albright's home.

A special master was on site at the Thelen Reid search to seal documents at the firm's request, but not at the other offices.

Special masters for searches are not required for attorneys who are targets of criminal probes. The law provides for other exceptions to the special master requirement, and the District Attorney's Office would not confirm that the other firms are suspected in crimes.

The City Council majority -- Ruvalcaba, Benavides and Moriel -- are considered backers of Robles and have been targeted in a recall campaign along with him. Albright is representing the city in a series of lawsuits spurred by that recall drive.

Council members Henry Gonzalez and Hector De La Torre and City Clerk Carmen Avalos were then targeted in a separate recall drive.

Friday's hearing was the second on objections to examining the seized material. The first was held before Pounders a week earlier, the day after the search warrants were executed.

Carl Moor of Munger, Tolles & Olson, representing the Albright firm, said he plans to present Pounders with motions on whether seized material was in the scope of the warrant, and if it was in the scope of the warrant, whether it is covered by attorney-client or attorney work product privilege .

Newhouse, representing the city, Ruvalcaba and Young, said 95 percent of the material seized was outside the scope of the warrant. There were between 50 and 100 privileged documents taken by investigators from City Hall, he said.

Pounders denied a request from Deputy District Attorney Anthony Colannino for a protective order to keep certain documents seized from the city clerk's office from being seen by other parties involved, including Newhouse, the attorney for the city.

Colannino said elected City Clerk Carmen Avalos' attorney sent a letter to the District Attorney's Office asking for copies of everything seized. In December Avalos was stripped of the bulk of her election duties by the City Council majority.

Newhouse protested the idea of a protective order for the documents, arguing that documents seized from City Hall are city property and that he, as a lawyer for the city, should be able to review them.

Newhouse called Avalos' request "an attempt to obtain city documents that she is not entitled to," noting Avalos also sought material removed from the home of South Gate City Attorney Salvador Alva and others.

Newhouse told the MetNews Avalos and the city are currently involved in a lawsuit and her request for these documents is an attempt by her lawyers to get information "she has no right to see."

The city has sued Avalos, alleging that she approved recall petitions against the council majority after the Nov. 21 deadline for submitting them.

An earlier set of recall petitions was delivered to the council several months ago when Avalos appeared in good standing with the council majority. But she accused the city attorney of grabbing the petitions during a council meeting and leaving with them before they could be properly filed.

Colannino disagreed that Avalos, whose office was searched, was trying to get privileged information, arguing that as a searched party she was only trying to get a copy of what was seized. Colannino said he was under the impression that everyone who was searched was represented at the first hearing on the seized material, and he requested the protective order only after he realized Avalos was not represented.

"I didn't want someone else's materials in someone else's hand," Colannino said.

Pounders agreed there would be no point to issuing a protective order now since Newhouse, the lawyer for the city, had already reviewed the documents taken from the city clerk's office.

"It's almost like closing the barn door after the horse has bolted," Pounders said.

Newhouse said he would send copies of the documents removed from the city clerk's office to Beltran & Medina, the law firm which is representing Avalos, but was not present at Friday�s hearing.

The attorneys objecting to the unsealing of the seized material will return to Pounders' courtroom next month for a status conference to discuss how to deal with computer hard drives, disks, laptops and other electronic material.

All of the computers in the downtown office of Albright, Yee & Schmit were seized by investigators and the District Attorney�s Office is in the process of copying their hard drives, Moor of Munger, Tolles said. Numerous computers and personal laptops were also seized from City Hall and private residences, Newhouse said. All of the hard drives that were seized will be copied and returned to the petitioners sometime this week, Colannino said.

Metropolitan News-Enterprise, Monday, May 13, 2002

Carson Council feuds over city attorney

By Gene Maddaus Staff Writer

In their most contentious meeting in more than a year, the Carson City Council this week feuded about the city attorney's contract, trading charges of corruption and lawbreaking and shouting each other down for control of the floor.

Mayor Jim Dear did most of the shouting Tuesday, as he accused the council majority of engaging in a backroom deal with attorney Francisco Leal.

Dear's allegations were based on a Daily Breeze article published March 23 that reported Leal's associates had made $3,800 in contributions to Councilman Mike Gipson's campaign for the Assembly. In return, a source said that Gipson agreed to put the city attorney's contract out to bid.

"One of the reasons the people elected me was to be a watchdog," Dear said, as the other council members yelled at him.

"It makes no sense for the city of Carson to blemish our own reputation with the behavior of three council members."

The majority, led by Councilwoman Lula Davis-Holmes, argued that it was Dear who had engaged in a backroom deal in 2003, when he and three other council members voted to hire the current city attorney firm, Aleshire & Wynder, in a closed session.

Gipson also defended himself from Dear's accusations, and said he had called Leal's firm the day the Daily Breeze story appeared and encouraged Leal to proceed with the bid.

"I told that firm they should compete anyway," Gipson said, "because I stand on my word and my integrity. I have not done anything wrong and will not compromise my position on this City Council."

Leal did not take Gipson's advice, and dropped out of the running for the city attorney contract on March 24.

Gipson said he took "great exception" to the Breeze story, and argued that his Assembly campaign "had nothing to do with my role and my responsibility here in the city of Carson."

"I have done everything aboveboard," he said.

"The reason money was located, or in fact, identified, was because that money was reported."

In fact, the money appeared to have been reported in such a way as to obscure its true source. Leal himself did not appear as a contributor. The listed contributors were Arturo Fierro, an attorney in Leal's firm; Maria Fierro, his wife; Ruth Castro, a former Alhambra school board member who once voted to hire Leal; and Johnny Leal, who was listed as a courier with Leal Courier Services.

After two hours of bitter debate, the council voted Tuesday night to open up the selection process by holding a meeting in May, at which time the finalists for the attorney's contract could make public presentations.

The council also voted 5-0 to release the bids to the public, in response to records requests from the Daily Breeze and council-watcher Rita Boggs.

Boggs acknowledged before the vote that she had already received a leaked copy of the bids. That disclosure prompted Dear to launch an inquiry from the mayor's chair, in which he attempted to determine who had given the documents to Boggs.

"There's been a very serious breach of ethics and the law," Dear said.

Boggs declined to identify her source, but said she received a call and was told where to pick up the documents.

Davis-Holmes and Gipson said they had not released the documents.

Both said that their copies of the bids were still sealed and were sitting in the trunks of their cars.

That dispute also exposed a rift between City Clerk Helen Kawagoe and City Manager Jerry Groomes.

Kawagoe initially refused to provide Groomes a copy of the proposals. Groomes insisted and ultimately Kawagoe relented, after Dear told her she should give them to the city manager.

Groomes said that neither he nor his staff had released the documents.

The Daily Breeze also received a copy of the bid proposals before the council voted to make them public. In Wednesday's newspaper, the Breeze reported that another contender for the attorney's contract, William D. Johnson, had acknowledged in his proposal that he had contributed to Gipson and Councilman Elito Santarina.

After he was questioned about that on Friday, Johnson sent a letter to the city on Tuesday withdrawing his proposal from consideration.

Long Beach Daily Breeze, April 3, 2008

Ex-official teams up with ex-city attorney in lawsuit

By Dan Abendschein, Staff Writer

MONTEBELLO - An official forced to resign by the City Council in 2006 is being represented by the former city attorney in a lawsuit against the city, a councilman and two former council members.

Ruben Lopez, the former community development director, is suing for breach of contract, defamation, invasion of privacy and infliction of emotional distress.

He is being represented by Arnold Alvarez-Glasman, the former Montebello city attorney who was ousted in a 3-2 vote by two of three council members he is suing on Lopez's behalf.

Lopez signed an agreement with the city when he left, stating that officials cannot "criticize, discredit, or otherwise disparage" him. He filed a legal complaint with the city in February saying council members and officials made "false and damaging statements" to the press and others.

Lopez requested $12 million as compensation for breach of the contract. The council rejected his complaint.

"The suit does not have merit," said Bob Bagwell, a former councilman named in the lawsuit.

Phone calls to Lopez and Alvarez-Glasman for comment were not returned.

Alvarez-Glasman is city attorney for several San Gabriel Valley cities, including West Covina and Pomona.

Lopez agreed to step down in July 2006 under threat of being voted out by a three-council-member majority of Bagwell, Jeff Siccama and Norma Lopez-Reid.

Siccama said Lopez was too attached to development projects that were not bringing in any tax revenue, and the city wanted to go in a new direction. He said both Glasman and Lopez were out to get the city. "I think they want to get in their shots at the city," Siccama said.

Bagwell and Lopez-Reid lost their seats in November's election. Siccama is facing a recall election later this month.

All three were linked to the dismissal of Lopez, the head city administrator, and the fire chief. They were also accused of trying to scrap the Fire Department in order to bring in county fire services.

Alvarez-Glasman, who served on the Montebello City Council from 1985 to 1997, had his contract terminated by the city in 2005 by a three-member majority that included Bagwell and Lopez-Reid.

Bagwell said Alvarez-Glasman was too connected to developers, some of whom Lopez was initiating development deals with.

Bagwell and Lopez-Reid were joined by Councilman Bill Molinari in voting Alvarez-Glasman out.

Molinari later spoke out against the city pressuring Lopez to resign and opposed Siccama, Lopez-Reid and Bagwell when they voted to terminate the contracts of the city administrator and fire chief.

Bagwell said he never was entirely clear why Molinari voted against Alvarez-Glasman.

"I was surprised we got Molinari's vote," said Bagwell. "I think he and Alvarez-Glasman are back on the same page now."

Molinari said he did not have concerns about Alvarez-Glasman, but felt the alternate law firm "better fit the city's needs." He did not offer specific reasons.

As part of his severance package Lopez received 12 months of pay, benefits and accrued retirement benefits, according to city documents.

Patricia Macht, a spokeswoman for the state's Cal PERS public-employee retirement system, said that while she was not familiar with Lopez's agreement and could not comment on it, city employees are not generally allowed to continue to accrue retirement benefits after they leave.

"Severance packages are not meant to be used as a way to keep people on the payroll to accrue benefits," Macht said.

She said it was possible that Lopez might not be able to collect retirement benefits for the 12 months after his dismissal from the city.

The city has not been served with the lawsuit yet, officials said, so for now there are no court dates set.

San Gabriel Valley Tribune, December 9, 2007

City Attorneys Grapple With Responses to Political Bloggers

By Gary Scott, Daily Journal Staff Writer

Bloggers have become a fixture in national politics, as commonplace as BlackBerrys and lobbyists.

Increasingly, they have trained their caustic wit and snarky commentary on City Hall.

The rough and tumble that often accompanies this new level of attention has caught many small-town politicians off-guard. And when bloggers publish accusations of wrongdoing or mount harsh attacks - especially when the information gets picked up by the local newspaper or a more widely read blog - city officials want to fight back.

That usually involves a call to the city attorney.

Recent posts on an Internet bulletin board for city attorneys illustrates the struggles they face trying to respond to client concerns. The first lesson is that bloggers, even those who cloak themselves in anonymity, are afforded broad free-speech protections. The second lesson is that any effort to block, thwart or silence a blogger usually provides them with their best material.

Pomona City Attorney Arnold Alvarez-Glasman wrote on the bulletin board about a confrontation he had with two anonymous bloggers running the San Gabriel Valley-based Foothill Cities blog. Alvarez-Glasman had threatened to sue the bloggers, who call themselves Publius and Centinel, after they published comments that suggested the city manager was pressured to resign.

"I wrote a 'cease and desist' letter to the operator of the blog, and you would have thought I had spit in their face or on the computer," Alvarez-Glasman wrote.

After initially pulling the comments from their site, Publius and Centinel struck back with a letter of their own from attorney Jean-Paul Jassy, of Bostwick & Jassy in Los Angeles. It essentially dared Alvarez-Glasman to try and make a case, citing the high bar on libel put in place by New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. The bloggers then posted the attorney letters side by side on their Web site, along with comments from other, more well-known blogs - Instapundit, LA Observed, The Volokh Conspiracy - that questioned Alvarez-Glasman's judgment.

"We also found many old, unflattering articles about Alvarez-Glasman that I am sure he didn't want to be reminded of," Publius, who chooses to remain anonymous, wrote in a recent e-mail to the Daily Journal. "The incident was mentioned in the L.A. Times and all the local newspapers. In essence, the city created a story by threatening us."

The lesson, Alvarez-Glasman tells his colleagues: "After going through all of this, my personal advice would be to have your clients develop [or purchase] some very thick skin."

Roy Hanley, attorney for the cities of Solvang and King, agreed a public fight should be avoided.

"You will never hear the end of it," Hanley said. "Nobody feels sorry for public officials with thin skin."

Publius, who uses the same pseudonym as the authors of the Federalist Papers, had this advice for city attorneys: "Only threaten legal action if you have a strong legal case. Avoid threats at all costs. And if you are a city attorney, realize that if you overstep your bounds, you might pay for it publicly."

JoAnn Speers, executive director of the Institute for Local Government, the research arm of the League of California Cities, wrote a memo earlier this month titled "Dealing With Malicious Newspaper Web Site Blogs" in response to the city attorney comments. In it, she concluded that "the blogosphere [is] creating genuine heartburn for our local officials."

"What you hope is that everyone is trying to be ethical and is trying to get to the truth of a situation," Speers said. "One piece of advice that we have offered is that there is a variety of codes of ethics that bloggers have been discussing, including one that has been taken from and adapted from the Society of Professional Journalists."

This code of ethics includes a line that bloggers disclose conflicts of interest, affiliations, activities and personal agendas. Although not saying it directly, the rule appears to argue against the use of anonymity.

Indeed, the anonymous blogs and commentary appear to be a primary concern for local officials. Before blogs, gadflies and critics had to come to a council meeting and state their name before airing their grievances. Letters to the editor in the local paper had to be signed. But bloggers can publish information without saying who they are or whether they have a personal agenda. Many blogs also allow readers to post anonymous comments, and some newspaper Web sites are doing the same.

"We're anonymous primarily because we'd like people to judge us based on what we actually say and argue, rather than who we are," Publius said. "This is the same reason our Founding Fathers argued anonymously in newspapers and pamphlets during the debate over the Constitution. Of course, they argued over whether or not to adopt one of the most successful forms of government in the history of the world while we sometimes talk about how good the Donut Man in Glendora is, but so it goes."

Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, sees similarities between today's bloggers and the pamphleteers of old.

"I guess it is, in its purest form, what the First Amendment was written to protect," Ewert said. "Whether that extends to the right to do it in complete anonymity is an interesting question."

A case in Paris, Texas, could provide an answer. A state district judge has said he will order an Internet service provider to reveal the name of an anonymous blogger who has been critical of management at a local hospital. According to the Houston Chronicle, the blogger's lawyer has said he will appeal to preserve his client's anonymity.

"If someone claims defamation, is that enough to require the host to release the identity of the blogger?" Ewert asked.

Outraged officials in Claremont, a small college town on the eastern edge of Los Angeles, would like to know who posted pay stubs on the blog Claremont Insider. The officials have claimed that the "confidential" documents were stolen and contain private information that could expose employees to identify theft. The City Council has asked the county sheriff to investigate and has met to consider a possible lawsuit. In addition, the city demanded that Google, which hosts the site, force Claremont Insider to remove images of the stubs.

Claremont Insider has chronicled every move with relish. Visits to the site increased fourfold.

The blogger, who goes by the name Claremont Buzz, has countered that the pay stubs were downloaded from the city's own online archives and do not contain private information. The city says the stubs have bank routing numbers used for direct deposit. The blogger also posted the back-and-forth with Google, which told Claremont Insider to remove images on the grounds that they are copyrighted material - an assertion that has First Amendment lawyers scratching their heads.

"If nothing else, this entire matter has been a great illustration of exactly why we have been critical of the city in the past," Claremont Buzz wrote in the blog. "Claremont has too often operated under an irrational, illogical process that is at odds with the town's fluffed-up, sanitized self-image."

Claremont City Attorney Sonia Carvalho, of Best, Best & Krieger, said she has treated the situation as if a newspaper had published the information. The lesson she learned from Alvarez-Glasman's case is to avoid a legal conflict if she can.

"All that got him was really bad press," she said. "You cannot fight with an anonymous person."

One way officials are responding to the blog phenomenon is to blog themselves. San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre started The Aguirre Report in response to what he considered to be unfair coverage by the San Diego Union-Tribune. The League of California Cities started CaliforniaCityNews.org, which it describes as a roundup of "politics, policy and best practices of city government." The blog includes a Gadfly Hall of Fame, with links to videos of the more traditional confrontation that happen in City Council chambers.

In an e-mail posted on the list serve, attorney Michael Colantuono, who has worked for Auburn, Calabasas, Monrovia and Sierra Madre, suggested his colleagues weigh carefully whether comments posted on a blog meet the strict standard of malice contained in Sullivan, or just amount to nasty or negative commentary. If the standard cannot be met, he recommends city officials meet with local newspaper editors to ensure they screen out anonymous speech "to eliminate irresponsible expression."

If that fails, he said, "develop a thick skin."

Los Angeles Daily Journal, September 26, 2007

Sworn to root out the corrupt; DA's integrity unit polices pols' behavior

By Frank C. Girardot, Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES - David Demerjian's office window looks north from downtown over a small slice of the county that pays him to police its politicians.

Inside the office, on the seventh floor of a building well past its prime, Demerjian is surrounded by law books, CDs, photographs and a faded coffee table history of Mad Magazine.

As head of the Los Angeles County District Attorney's Public Integrity Division, Demerjian, 53, hopes he is the man corrupt politicians fear most.

In recent weeks, politicians in several local cities, including Covina, Montebello and Alhambra, have found themselves in Demerjian's crosshairs.

It wasn't always that way.

"It seems like just recently we've been active in the San Gabriel Valley," Demerjian said. "The more success we have, the more people become aware of what we do - although the number of complaints we have is very constant." The enforcement of statutes as arcane as the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state's open-meeting law, or as basic as bribery of public officials is a relatively new concept in Los Angeles County, Demerjian said.

Prior to 2000, officials pretty much ignored the petty crimes of politicians and appointed officials, Demerjian said.

"I didn't even know corruption existed in Los Angeles County," he said.

Things changed just after Steve Cooley was elected DA. Cooley said he formed the division after a reporter asked him to look into a Brown Act violation involving the Los Angeles Unified School District.

"The Brown Act was never enforced - ever, ever, ever, since it was enacted in 1952," Cooley said. "We started enforcing it the first week I was in office."

Since 2001, the PID has handled 259 Brown Act complaints. From those complaints, Demerjian has sent 69 letters to various city councils, school boards, water and special districts. Unlike corruption cases, which are criminal, Brown Act violations are normally civil matters.

"If there is a violation, there are two letters we might write," Demerjian said. "One says, `We believe you violated the \ on such and such a day. And we are asking you declare that action to be void."

The second?

"It's basically a `knock it off' letter," Demerjian said.

Only one agency, the Covina Redevelopment Agency, has ever been targeted for civil action in a Brown Act case, primarily because the CRA didn't agree it had violated the law. That case is ongoing and awaiting an interpretation from the state attorney general.

Beyond Brown Act cases, Demerjian has received 2,061 complaints of criminal activity and corruption, according to official records.

From those, 156 felony cases have been filed. Demerjian has taken 12 cases to trial and earned 11 convictions.

Unlike most other prosecutorial offices, which rely on police to bring forward cases, the PID looks into complaints generated by the general public.

Sometimes the complaints come from legitimately concerned citizens; others are merely political.

"We do see that when a majority in a city changes we end up with new targets," Demerjian said. "Sometimes whoever gets voted out, all of a sudden they are filing a complaint with us because the other side is now getting a bigger piece of the pie."

Open-government advocate Terry Francke of Californians Aware said connecting Brown Act and criminal prosecutions makes Demerjian's office more effective.

"It's an interesting linkage," Francke said. "You are not going to find a corrupt, yet, admirably open government."

Demerjian grew up in Covina and graduated from South Hills High School. He attended Cal State Fullerton, graduated law school and was hired by the DA's Office; first prosecuting juveniles.

From there, he moved to major narcotics prosecutions and finally hard-core gangs, he said.

As head of the hard-core gang unit, Demerjian filed the case against three Pasadena men accused of killing three teens on Halloween night in 1993.

The three men - Lorenzo Newborn, Herbert McClain, and Karl Holmes - were ultimately sentenced to death three years to the day after the killings. Jonlyn Callahan, a prosecutor in the case, now works for Demerjian in the PID.

Going after criminal corruption isn't too different from going after gang members, Demerjian said.

"The witness intimidation factor is similar," he said. "People are afraid to speak out."

Being targeted in a PID investigation is nothing to take lightly. As with any police agency serving search warrants, PID investigators come to the door with guns drawn and a willingness to leave no stone unturned.

West Covina City Councilman Roger Hernandez was targeted in 2005 as part of an investigation that concluded in March with no charges being filed.

"There was knocking at the door," Hernandez said, recalling the day when the condominium he shares with his brother was searched.

"I popped the door open, looked outside and there were multiple firearms pointing at me," Hernandez said. "It's traumatic to have people going through your underwear drawer, your sock drawer. It's a traumatizing, violating experience."

Former Baldwin Park City Councilman Bill Van Cleave, who is facing trial in July for misuse of public funds, recalled a similar experience.

"They kicked my door in and held guns to my head," said Van Cleave. "They handcuffed me and took me in. And now, I can say they ruined my entire life. I can't work, and I can't sleep."

On the other hand, Covina resident and community activist Steve Millard, who brought the complaint against the Covina Redevelopment Agency, praised Demerjian and his deputies.

"I have dealt with them directly," Millard said. "It wasn't like they were there talking about golf scores."

Besides Van Cleave, the PID has put together a wide variety of local corruption cases, according to public documents.

Among them:

People v. Pete Sabatino (2002): Sabatino, a member of the West Covina School Board, pleaded guilty to perjury after PID investigators determined that he lived in Downey. He resigned from the board.

People v. Cody Cluff (2003): Cluff, a onetime resident of Covina, pleaded guilty to several counts of misuse of public funds and embezzlement. The crimes were allegedly committed while Cluff headed the Entertainment Industry Development Council.

People v. Parker Williams and Frank Liu (pending): Williams, a former Alhambra councilman, was videotaped allegedly offering a $25,000 cash bribe to current councilman Danny Arguello in return for his vote on a proposed shopping center. Liu, a developer, is also charged in the case. The case is scheduled to go to trial later this year.

Demerjian said he anticipates the DA's Office will continue prosecuting political corruption for many years.

"I'm hoping that at some point if Steve Cooley doesn't want to run for DA, whoever comes in wants to keep this thing going," Demerjian said. "I think it serves an important function."

The function is simple to define, according to Cooley.

"The public is benefitting and all the honest people on city councils are benefitting too," Cooley said. "In a sense we're standing up for them."

Whittier Daily News, May 28, 2007









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