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A Wealth of Woes : Federal Bribery Inquiry Is Latest in a Long List of Setbacks as Compton Struggles to Get Back on its Feet

March 26, 1994|EMILY ADAMS and SHAWN HUBLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It has been a city beset for decades, its problems a familiar litany: Blight. Crime. Every fourth person in poverty. Schools so mismanaged they were taken over by the state.

So it was with a certain weariness that the city of Compton greeted its latest spate of bad news: A sweeping federal probe had developed allegations that local politicians accepted bribes, that the target of that investigation was Compton City Hall, that an undercover agent posing as a businessman had offered two of the city's political stars bribes to have items placed on council agendas.

Among the named targets were Rep. Walter R. Tucker III, a former mayor and a scion of one of Compton's oldest, wealthiest and most politically entrenched families, and former Councilwoman Patricia A. Moore, one of Compton's most visible activists. Sources close to the probe said other city officials were being investigated as well.

Compton has become well acquainted with poverty and the temptations that go with it. The city was once a bustling, ethnically mixed community of frame houses and tidy storefronts. In the 1950s it became one of many Southland areas in which housing integration prompted white flight. In the 1960s the Watts riots and other social upheavals prompted business owners--most of them white--to flee the city. With the businesses went the jobs. With joblessness came crime. And as crime and gang violence took a progressively bigger toll during the past decade, some of the city's black middle class began to move out, replaced by Latino immigrants.

Today Compton is a city of 91,400 residents, 27% of whom live below the poverty line--nearly twice as high as the proportion of poor people in Los Angeles County. Fewer than 3.5% of its households have an income of more than $50,000 a year.

It is a place where cynicism about the motivations of public officials has risen as various attempts by City Hall to bootstrap the community back into the middle class have faltered.

There was the storied auto mall, the strip of shiny dealerships that was going to save downtown. Then the Compton Ramada was going to be the city's salvation, a luxury hotel for meetings and weddings and fancy Sunday brunch. Then there was the wealth that the Blue Line was expected to trundle into town, to a transit center and shopping mall.

Every deal raised Compton's civic hopes only to dash them with bad timing or bad management or bad luck.

The 66-acre auto mall, for example, ended up being built with a 10-foot brick wall around it, hiding the rows of shining cars from potential customers. Two of three dealerships defaulted on millions of dollars in city loans in 1989 and closed their doors. Only one dealer remains on the lonely street.

The Compton Ramada--the city's first grand hotel--had to be seized by the city last year. After paying the developer about $30 million to build the attached parking structure and convention center, the city loaned him the $6.7 million he needed to complete the project. But the developer, Naftali Deutsch, never made a single payment on the loan, and now the hotel is in the city's lap.

The contractor who promised to deliver the vaunted $4.1-million multipurpose transit center was declared in default for failing to complete the project in 1989. The city finished the project, but the inner mall Compton had hoped to see crammed with Blue Line commuters on shopping sprees is so far a vista of mostly empty storefronts.

With failure has come finger-pointing. Each fizzled venture has brought with it new rumors of corruption at City Hall. But much is said and little is proved.

Maxcy Filer, a 41-year resident of the city and a former councilman, said that when the auto mall was pushing for more dealerships and the Compton Ramada was in the planning stages in the early and mid-1980s, it seemed that council members were constantly being feted at banquets attended by city contractors who stood to gain from those projects and who would spend thousands of dollars on tickets.

The proceeds "were supposed to go for their reelection campaigns," said Filer, a councilman from 1976 to 1991. "But who knows if they actually were? We could have filled that (auto) plaza but six or seven dealerships were turned away because, as far as I could see, they didn't buy tickets" to the politicians' testimonial banquets.

The charges and countercharges have created a political climate notable for its bitterness.

Take the scandal of 1985, in which Councilman Floyd A. James, then battling Patricia Moore to hold on to his council seat, was accused of illegally trading votes for record albums featuring the Rev. Jesse Jackson's fiery "Our Time Has Come" speech.

James, who won that election, ended up pleading no contest to a far less serious charge of sending out an illegal mailer. He served three years probation and two weeks picking up freeway trash--but not before someone called the local police to claim that the key witness against him was growing marijuana in her back yard.

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