CARSON — Two firms with city contracts and one of the city's biggest landowners were asked by a ranking city official to help pay for a $2,200 reception following the funeral for the husband of Mayor Sylvia Muise.
At the request of the city attorney's office, the state Fair Political Practices Commission is examining the circumstances to determine whether a contribution to the reception could be considered a gift to the mayor.
If so, the state law on conflicts of interest would bar the mayor from voting on major issues that affect the donors, according to FPPC spokeswoman Lynn Montgomery.
Howard Homan, the city's director of parks and recreation, acknowledged in an interview that he had asked for contributions from the city's caterer, Mastroianni Family Services; the city's trash hauler, Western Waste Industries, and Watson Land Co.
In addition, Len Kosonen, plant manager of the giant Atlantic Richfield refinery in Carson, said that Arco had been asked to help defray the reception expenses by Michael Elliott, Watson Land vice president.
Kosonen and Elliott said they are frequently asked to contribute to civic organizations but could not recall being solicited for anything similar to the reception.
Muise said she did not ask city employees to raise funds for the reception and was unaware until two weeks after the reception that any solicitations had been made on her behalf.
While waiting for an opinion from the FPPC, none of the firms has made any payments for the reception.
"Someone is going to pay," said Jay Mastroianni, owner of the firm that catered the reception. "I'm sure as hell not going to pay her funeral expenses. I certainly didn't agree to do it for nothing."
Mastroianni said he contributed by giving Muise a break on the price. "Howard (Homan) was just trying to get a good price. That was my contribution," he said.
At the June 20 reception at Muise's house, four waiters from his company served 150 guests poached salmon, broccoli souffle, beef in a sauce, salads and pastries.
Mastroianni Family Services caters all events held at the city's community center, which is under Homan's supervision, and the firm grossed close to $1 million on its city contract in the 12 months ending June 30.
In 1983, when Mastroianni was awarded a five-year contract, Homan was one of the city employees who evaluated the bids, and the mayor was the council member who made the motion to award the contract to the firm.
The other three companies involved apalso have major business interests with the city. On July 21, Western Waste Industries asked the council for an unscheduled 25% rate increase for trash collection. Muise made a motion to approve, which passed 3 to 1.
Watson Land pays close attention to Carson government action. Elliott, Watson's vice president for governmental relations, regularly attends council meetings from beginning to end, and, at another recent meeting, he expressed concern that a city annexation plan could add to the cost of a Watson project.
Arco, whose Carson refinery is valued at $400 million, also has a project before the city. It is seeking a conditional-use permit to build two 450,000-barrel storage tanks for crude oil on property near Wilmington Avenue and Lomita Boulevard.
Homan said he got involved in helping with the reception shortly after June 13, when 49-year-old Leonard Muise, a TRW design engineer, died of cancer.
Homan said he went to the mayor's house and met with the mayor's niece, Sue Kinnane, to talk about the reception, and at that time offered to solicit local businesses to pay for it. He said that the mayor was in the house but that she was not paying much attention to the conversation.
Until Homan made his offer, Muise had been planning "a traditional potluck get-together," according to the letter sent to the FPPC by the city attorney's office. Muise would supply napkins and paper plates; friends and relatives would bring dishes of food, the letter said.
Homan contended that the cost for the reception at the mayor's house "was not her bill to pay. . . . This is something I took upon myself to show respect for Leonard."
He said he had "no ulterior motives" in seeking funds for the reception from local firms with business before the city.
"That is not so unusual. These people are part of the city family. . . . These people had a genuine interest in showing respect for Leonard Muise," he said. "We all felt Leonard Muise was a super guy."
Although Mastroianni said he considered Homan "the guy I have to please over there" at City Hall, he said he did not think that he was being pressured to contribute in order to maintain good relations.
Elliott also said he did not feel that Watson Land's relations with the city depended on making a contribution to the reception.
"Here the top elected official in the community loses her spouse, and in that moment of grief we think it is appropriate that we are asked to assist," he said.