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Eastside Supporters Rally as New Alatorre Probe Begins

Politics: Group condemns report of charities' links to wife's firm. City ethics panel launches its own inquiry.

July 12, 1997|RICH CONNELL and ROBERT J. LOPEZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As an Eastside group Friday defended the integrity of Los Angeles Councilman Richard Alatorre, the powerful politician was coming under scrutiny on a new front: from the city's Ethics Commission.

Roughly 60 supporters rallied on Alatorre's behalf after disclosures in The Times that two charities he has championed are under investigation for steering money to an event-planning firm founded by his wife. Both Angie and Richard Alatorre, who also is an influential member of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board, have said in interviews that they have engaged in no wrongdoing. Officials of the charities also say that nothing improper has occurred.

The investigation is being conducted by the MTA inspector general's office. Many of the largest donations to the charities--El Sereno Youth Development Corp. and Feliz Navidad Project Inc.--have come from contractors and others seeking business with the transit agency.

The story, published Monday, has "taken a bite of the soul of the community," said Father Juan Santillan during a news conference at his Lincoln Heights church. He warned that the councilman's constituency will not tolerate a continuation of such coverage. "We do not want to threaten," he said, "but we are a people of action."

At City Hall, meanwhile, investigators are launching action of their own. They have begun examining Alatorre's intervention with charity regulators last year on behalf of Eventfully Yours, where in recent years his wife has been a key employee.

The councilman's reported intercession--a call to a top city executive--enabled the company to collect thousands of dollars in fees for staging a fund-raiser for the El Sereno charity.

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The executive, charity regulator Shirley Flucus, had refused to issue a permit for the fund-raiser, citing Eventfully Yours' failure to file financial information on its operations. Flucus said the councilman asked her to "do me a favor" and give the firm "a break." Reluctantly, she said, she extended Eventfully Yours' license so the fund-raiser could proceed.

Alatorre has said he has no recollection of the call.

City ethics laws generally prohibit elected officials from inducing special treatment not available to the public at large. The Ethics Commission staff has begun collecting information on the incident involving Alatorre, The Times has learned.

The agency's executive director, Rebecca Avila, would neither confirm nor deny the probe. But speaking generally about issues raised by the newspaper's article, she said: "Misuse of city position or failing to comply with city financial disclosure requirements would be a serious violation of the city ethics ordinance and something the commission would want to look at very carefully."

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The reported intervention at City Hall by Alatorre, whose office said he could not be reached for comment Friday, may also violate state conflict-of-interest laws.

Those statutes generally prohibit elected officials from participating in or influencing any government decision affecting a source of income to their household, said Gary Huckaby, communications director of the state Fair Political Practices Commission.

"I can't predict what action the enforcement officials may take as a result of the revelations," he said Friday. "They are studying the article."

At Friday's community rally, the Eastside group angrily attacked what it called the newspaper's "character assassination" of a veteran elected official with a legacy of good works in his heavily Latino district. They noted that Alatorre's Feliz Navidad Project has given Christmas toys to thousands of youngsters, while the El Sereno charity has provided recreational programs and helped guide children away from gangs.

Alatorre's supporters--calling themselves the Committee Requesting Fair Political Reporting--said in a news release that The Times story was a "deliberate attempt to discredit Councilman Alatorre and create doubt concerning his integrity as a public servant."

"It's very, very disappointing," said attorney Luis Carrillo, a board member of the Feliz Navidad charity.

Responding on behalf of The Times, director of communications Laura Morgan said:

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"We examine carefully and fairly the records of many political figures in the course of a year, including Councilman Alatorre. Those examinations are part of our journalistic duty. We carry them out without favoritism, and with pride in our journalistic responsibilities."

The rally came one day after Alatorre offered a lengthy rebuttal to The Times report in an Eastside weekly newspaper. In his front-page commentary, he called the story a "real tragedy," accusing The Times of "trying to do another hit piece on a Latino elected official [that] may hurt the Christmases and recreational opportunities of thousands of kids in my district."

He told readers of the Los Angeles Eastside Sun that he has not been "formally" advised that the nonprofits are under any investigation and said he does not believe there is any such probe.

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