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City Official Under Investigation by D.A.'s Office : San Fernando: Parks director Jess Margarito denies wrongdoing and says allegations stem from a vendetta against him.

September 09, 1993|LESLIE BERGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FERNANDO — The city parks director is under criminal investigation by the district attorney's office for a variety of allegations, including that he falsified work records of court-referred laborers and used them for jobs at his home, officials said Wednesday.

Jess Margarito--a prominent activist who served as the city's first Latino mayor--has also been under investigation since last spring for allegedly failing to repay loans borrowed from a nonprofit community group and failing to account for revenues generated by the rental of city recreation facilities, according to two City Hall sources who asked not to be named.

On Tuesday, City Atty. Julia Silva told the five-member City Council in closed session that she would, at the request of City Administrator Mary Strenn, review Margarito's personnel file for possible administrative charges.

The council took no action and Margarito, whose official title is director of Community Services and Recreation, remains in his $62,000-a-year post.

Margarito would not discuss the exact allegations against him Wednesday, saying he knew few specifics. "I'm trying to flush out the details also," he said.

But he branded both investigations as retaliation by Anglo city officials who, he said, resented his support of a sexual-harassment charge last spring against a popular Anglo parks department employee.

Margarito said he and at least five other city employees intend to file charges Friday with the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing, accusing Strenn and Interim Personnel Director Bill Hamilton of racial discrimination and sexual harassment.

Both top city officials failed to "adequately address" the claims against the parks employee, Margarito said in a press release he issued Tuesday evening, shortly before the City Council meeting.

Dozens of friends and political supporters attended the meeting on behalf of Margarito, a longtime community activist, former parks employee and temporary U.S. Census worker. He was elected to the City Council in 1984 and was later elected mayor by his fellow council members. Citing his need for a job, he resigned from the council in 1990, and soon became director of the city's newly created community services department.

"We will claim a process of punishment and retaliation and will document it," Margarito said Wednesday.

The parks employee who was accused of sexual harassment, a maintenance supervisor, was cleared of wrongdoing by a city personnel investigation, sources said.

The accused worker, in turn, triggered the investigation of Margarito, the sources said. In June, the whistle-blower was transferred to the Public Works Department to avoid Margarito, along with four workers under his supervision, sources said.

Strenn, Silva and other city officials declined to discuss details of the complicated case, which several sources said represents a growing power struggle between Latinos and Anglos in a city known for its tiny size and vicious politics.

Those who declined to comment included Mayor Daniel Acuna, an old ally of Margarito who himself has been accused by critics of failing to repay loans from constituents and for cashing political contributions for personal use.

"It would be inappropriate or unfair to Mr. Margarito for anyone to make any premature judgment on the situation," Acuna said. He added that he expects Silva to report back to the City Council in the next few weeks.

Many of the dozens of allegations against Margarito involve fudging on the time cards of misdemeanor criminals who perform manual labor for San Fernando, Los Angeles and other cities in lieu of paying fines or going to jail.

Most of the court-referred workers have been convicted of petty theft, traffic offenses and other nonviolent crimes, and cash-strapped cities have come to rely on their free labor.

Margarito's attorney, Arthur L. Goldberg of Echo Park, said he has been assured by an investigator for the district attorney's office that the claims against Margarito involve no financial misdeeds, such as bribes or misappropriating funds. He noted that the investigation has been going on about six months and that no charges have been filed against Margarito.

But Deputy Dist. Atty. Roger Gunson, who heads the Special Investigations Division that is handling the case, dismissed Goldberg's comments. The investigation remains active, Gunson said. He declined to elaborate.

The parks department hasn't received any court-referred laborers since June, when the private agency that places the workers wrote to Strenn complaining of "indiscretions" in its accounting procedures, sources said.

The June 8 letter from the Volunteer Center of the San Fernando Valley said new referrals would resume only when procedural and administrative changes were made in the department, sources said. Court-referred workers continue to be sent to the city's Public Works Department.

"That's the only reason we're getting them," one city official said. "Because Public Works is handling them--not Jess."

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