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Tire Firm Probe Ensnarls Harbor Official

June 27, 1991|ROXANA KOPETMAN and FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Citing two secretly tape-recorded conversations and several work orders turned over by two former employees, investigators alleged this week that a tire company owned by Long Beach Harbor Commissioner George Talin Sr. has been falsely billing Los Angeles County and other customers for work that was never performed.

A search warrant affidavit released this week after a three-month investigation by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office alleges that Talin Tire Inc. has been "stealing" from its patrons.

" . . . The evidence demonstrates that Talin Tire Inc. charged its customers for repair work that was never performed and/or took tire casings . . . that were perfectly good," then told the customer that the casings needed to be replaced, according to the affidavit filed in Los Angeles Municipal Court.

Talin could not be reached for comment. His son, Michael, director of administration at Talin Tire, denied any wrongdoing by the company and said the firm would conduct an investigation of its own. "It appears the district attorney believes that one employee of our company is misrepresenting billing to our customers," Talin said Wednesday. "It's not company policy, I can tell you that."

Last Thursday, investigators raided the tire company's headquarters in Rancho Dominguez, as well as subcontractors in Fontana and Fullerton. The searches culminated an investigation that began with information provided by a former employee.

Talin sells and repairs tires, including heavy-equipment tires used by the L.A. County Sanitation Districts and several private businesses. Investigators said they seized approximately 60 boxes of paperwork, including invoices showing Talin also did work for the Long Beach Unified School District, the city of Long Beach and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

The investigation could result in felony charges of grand theft, saidMichael Delaney, head deputy of the consumer protection division. Delaney said he did not know how much the alleged losses totaled.

News of the investigation has left in limbo Talin's future on the powerful Board of Harbor Commissioners, where he has served since 1985.

Mayor Ernie Kell, who planned to reappoint Talin when his term expires Sunday, said he will hold off for now. "I'm in the process of gathering information," Kell said. "I'm sure once the information is in . . . when this is all cleared up, there won't be any reason to not reappoint him.

"I have confidence in Mr. Talin, his integrity and his character," said Kell, commending Talin for his work on the commission. Kell said he spoke with the commissioner on Monday. "He said that when the dust is settled, there won't be any support for the allegations."

Talin is one of five commissioners who set policy for the Long Beach Harbor and its port, which handles more tons of cargo than any other port on the West Coast.

The investigation into the Talin tire operation apparently stemmed from information provided by Charles Ward, a former employee who said he resigned in March because he "did not want to work for a company that was stealing." Before he quit, he photocopied examples of Talin's billing practices allegedly showing the company was fraudulently charging for work that was never done, according to court documents.

Investigators were then led to a second employee, Robert Schulz, who secretly tape-recorded a conversation with store manager Ed Stocklen. The transcript of the conversation describes how Stocklen wanted Schulz to take two good tires from a customer, claiming they were defective. The tires were to be resold at a profit, the documents said. Schulz said he refused and was fired the next day, Jan. 30, 1990.

In a second recorded conversation, assistant store manager Allen Mongue said he knew company officials were "stealing," but was sure they would never be caught.

" . . . There's no way you'll ever catch 'em," Mongue said to Schulz on the tape. "Every (expletive) tire company does it." Mongue and Stocklen could not be reached for comment.

Delaney said investigators are sifting through the seized paperwork and could not predict if or when charges would be filed.

The results of the investigation could determine Talin's future as a harbor commissioner. He is eligible for a second six-year term, but may continue to serve indefinitely at Kell's behest after his term expires.

Harbor commissioners are selected by Kell and submitted to the City Council for approval, although it is rare for a council member to vote against the mayor's nominee. Those appointed tend to be wealthy, influential business people who give generously to local political campaigns.

"The type of people the mayor appoints to a major commission usually . . . (are) quite well known in the city," said Harbor Commissioner David L. Hauser. "They're supportive of the mayor and they're also supportive of other local political people."

Hauser, like other city officials, said he was surprised to hear Talin's business is under investigation.

"I don't know that much about George's tire business other than he's been very successful," Hauser said. "His tire firm is one of the biggest truck tire dealers in the Western states."

Talin's company employs about 300 people, according to Michael Talin.

Councilman Evan Anderson Braude, whose district includes the port, said he had insufficient information to draw any conclusions. "All we have is speculation," he said. "He hasn't been found guilty of anything."

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