Los Angeles Councilman Richard Alatorre, who repeatedly has denied recent use of cocaine, has continued to use the drug, a Superior Court judge ruled Tuesday after a surprise courthouse test two weeks ago.
"Richard Alatorre's credibility has been totally shredded as to his profound declaration he has been clean from the use of cocaine," Judge Henry W. Shatford wrote in a harshly worded decision in a bitter child guardianship case. "Court-ordered testing has proved to the contrary.
"The fact that Mr. Alatorre has been unable to cure his cocaine use," the judge concluded, "is indeed a tragedy."
The councilman's top aide said Tuesday that Alatorre's attorney has filed a motion challenging the methodology and results of the lab test. Asked if Alatorre was denying recent cocaine use, his chief of staff, Hillary Norton Orozco, said she had not discussed that issue with her boss.
In a statement released by the councilman's office, Alatorre noted that he had readily complied with the court-ordered drug screening and raised questions about "whether the 'laboratory' is in fact an actual testing facility and whether the testing procedures are flawed or improper." Alatorre said he would submit to future random testing.
A spokesman for the testing company, Scientific America, said the firm has done court-ordered drug testing for the past four years in Orange and Los Angeles counties. Licensed nurses collect samples, which are frozen and can be cross-tested by other labs.
The court's disclosure came as Shatford stripped Alatorre of guardianship of his 10-year-old niece, who had been living with the councilman and his wife, Angie, since the girl's mother died in 1996. The guardianship was challenged by the child's father, Henry Lozano, a longtime political rival of Alatorre.
Citing the lawmaker's continued cocaine use, the judge ruled that "a very fine family situation" has been "destroyed by the acts and conduct of Mr. Alatorre."
The judge, who reviewed reams of financial records, some involving associates with government business interests, also wrote that the lawmaker had "questionable conflict of interest financial dealings as a city councilman."
Alatorre apparently was caught off guard by an on-the-spot drug test ordered Sept. 17 by Shatford in his chambers, after the councilman returned to the courthouse from a lunch break.
The judge retained Angie Alatorre's guardianship, but ordered that the girl live with her grandmother for the time being. The councilman is barred from visiting with the girl until he successfully completes a drug detoxification program.
The judge also criticized Lozano, who was married at the time of his affair with the girl's mother, for making "no effort to bring his daughter into his home or even provide any real monetary assistance to her mother." Shatford left open the possibility that Lozano, chief of staff to Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), could one day assume some guardianship role.
Lozano, through his attorney Ricardo A. Torres, said he was "very pleased with the court's decision and looks forward to doing everything possible to reunify himself with his daughter, with the court's direction."
The finding that Alatorre has continued to abuse cocaine is sure to escalate the crises buffeting the councilman, until recently one of the region's most influential political power brokers.
An ongoing federal grand jury investigation is examining Alatorre's personal finances and public actions, including possible tax, banking and political corruption violations. Alatorre has said he has done nothing wrong in his personal or public actions.
Compounding his problems, the councilman owes tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills, as he struggles to replenish his financial war chest for next April's campaign, perhaps the toughest of his 25-year career.
When Shatford ordered the drug test, he was wrapping up the guardianship hearing and was preparing to make a ruling. He also had to weigh conflicting evidence about Alatorre's involvement with drugs.
Councilman Had Denied Recent Use
The councilman reluctantly testified under oath last month that he was a recovering "cocaine addict." But he insisted, as he has publicly, that he had not used the drug in about nine years.
His testimony echoed statements Alatorre made last summer after The Times first reported allegations of recent cocaine use by the councilman. Convening a City Hall news conference, Alatorre derided the story as an "outrageous" attack on his character, saying it was based on unreliable and disgruntled sources.
Shatford was confronted with some of the same allegations and denials.
In addition, Lozano's attorneys, Torres and Frank Lozoya, had presented the judge with the councilman's bank records. They wove together a theory that a near-daily pattern of automated teller machine withdrawals, often at locations far outside his district, pointed to continued drug use. The councilman emphatically denied that any of the cash withdrawals were for drugs.