A letter on City of Santa Ana stationery signed by City Councilman John Acosta, who praised the character of a local gang leader facing sentencing on drug charges, is becoming a campaign issue in the mayoral contest between Acosta and incumbent Daniel H. Young.
The letter was submitted to a San Bernardino Superior Court in late August in connection with a request by Santa Ana resident Arthur Romo, 30, for reconsideration of his three-year prison sentence for manufacturing methamphetamine destined for the illegal drug trade. Before that court could rule on Romo's petition, however, he was arrested by federal drug agents for his alleged involvement in an international money-laundering operation.
"When (Acosta) tries to intervene on behalf of somebody who has been convicted for drug-manufacturing charges, he abuses (his) office," the mayor said after learning of the letter's existence. "This guy should not be running for mayor, he should be resigning from his council seat."
But Acosta said that when he wrote the character reference at the request of Romo's attorney, he did not know of Romo's drug conviction, or that it would be used in that case.
"I had no information to that effect, none whatsoever," the councilman said. "Would I have done that letter if I had known then what I know today? No."
Acosta said that when he was asked for a reference--which he said is not an uncommon request--Romo's attorney told him he "might need it for a court-related matter," not that it was for a sentencing hearing.
Romo has become well-known in the community in recent months for his involvement in the United Gangs Council, a group of veteran gang leaders that meets regularly with neighborhood gangs in an attempt to end drive-by shootings. Romo also authored a peace treaty that was signed in late August by members of 48 rival gangs in Orange County.
While admitting to past run-ins with police and a brief County Jail sentence, Romo held himself out as the only one of the five gang council leaders who had not served state or federal prison time.
But following Romo's arrest on money-laundering charges by federal agents last month, Police Chief Paul M. Walters distributed a memo to City Council members informing them that Romo had been convicted in San Bernardino County in 1988 on the drug-manufacturing charges.
Romo had appealed his conviction and should have begun serving his three-year sentence in 1991 when he lost his appeal, but the sentencing paperwork was lost, making it necessary for the court to resentence him.
San Bernardino Deputy Dist. Atty. Dee Edgeworth said that Romo's attorney, at a court hearing in late August, asked the judge to reconsider the sentence, citing Romo's involvement with the United Gangs Council.
Among the items submitted in support of Romo's request for a more lenient sentence was Acosta's letter, which said, "Romo . . . has been providing leadership to one of the most successful youth efforts of our time. Mr. Romo and other members of our Hispanic community have organized the youth of our city to undertake steps away from drugs, gangs and violence."
Edgeworth said Romo's arrest by federal drug agents has effectively nullified his plea for a reduced sentence.
Mayor Young said Acosta made a bad call when he wrote the letter on city stationery without questioning the need for a character reference for Romo.
But Acosta also questioned how word of the letter had leaked out. "It's amazing how my (City Hall) mail file gets explored," Acosta said. "What is (Young) so worried about?"