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A Scramble for Power, Patronage

The battle for lucrative city attorney contracts in L.A. County's heavily Latino cities has resulted in some nasty allegations. Ex-partners in a well-connected firm are in the center of the storm.

November 17, 1999|TED ROHRLICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As new groups scramble to consolidate power and patronage in Los Angeles County's small cities, the pushing and shoving usually takes place underneath public radar.

One exception involves a pair of lawyers who, adversaries complain, have not exactly been using the good government handbook.

The lawyers, Stanford-educated J. Arnoldo Beltran and Harvard-trained H. Francisco Leal, have played power politics in pursuit of lucrative municipal attorney contracts long held by white-dominated law firms, and now also sought by competing Latinos, in cities with new or changing Latino majorities in southeast Los Angeles County and the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys.

They have used the specter of recall campaigns as a threat against newly elected Latino officials if those officials do not vote to give them contracts, the officials or their associates charged in interviews with The Times. In one instance, a political ally of the lawyers, state Sen. Richard Polanco, allegedly did the threatening for them.

The lawyers and Polanco deny the charges.

There is nothing new about mixing recall politics and the pursuit of city attorney jobs, which are awarded in small cities by majorities of five-member city councils. In Los Angeles County's largest cities, city attorneys are elected.

Edward Dilkes, a veteran white municipal lawyer, recalled that in the 1970s, he was part of a generation of lawyers allied with tax conservatives and environmentalists who seized political power largely at the expense of older, pro-development whites who had settled in Southern California after World War II. Dilkes said he got the city attorney's job in Rosemead after advising such allies on how to run a recall there.

But the allegations lodged against Beltran, Leal and Polanco go beyond merely advising. They involve a form of coercion--specifically, promising to call off recalls in return for contracts.

Because of the rifts they have created, the allegations are significant for another reason: They provide an unusual opportunity to glimpse normally secretive operations of the political machine Polanco is building as it continues to gain and keep footholds in Los Angeles County's local governments.

Polanco, a Democrat who represents northeast Los Angeles in the state Senate, has become known as the leading architect of Latino empowerment in California largely through his successes in sponsoring Latino Democratic candidates for the state Legislature. But he has also dabbled in local politics. He acknowledges that he has possible county supervisorial ambitions when he is termed out of the Legislature in 2002.

As his political allies, lawyers Beltran and Leal have enjoyed considerable success in recent years. They have represented, at various times, eight Los Angeles County cities with contracts each worth hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. They also became lobbyists in Sacramento for some of the same cities, earning tens of thousands of dollars more.

But as participants in a volatile business where job security is only as solid as a three-member city council majority, they also experienced their share of defeats--losing some of these same contracts to other lawyers in a hotly competitive field.

This past summer, Beltran and Leal broke up their partnership, dividing the cities that their firm represented in a move that Leal attributed to stylistic and personality differences. Leal is smoother, thinner, and at 39, 10 years younger than Beltran. He is the diplomat. Beltran is more plain-spoken and direct.

The allegations of coercion lodged against them and Polanco involve only three cities--Bell Gardens, which Beltran still represents; the city of Commerce, which Leal's breakaway firm still represents; and Lynwood, from which the Beltran-Leal firm was fired.

In Bell Gardens, two council members facing recalls said that Beltran and Leal told them early this year that the recalls could stop if the law firm were retained.

Councilman Joaquin Penilla said Leal told him: "What does it take for me to get you not to fire us? What does it take? You want us to stop the recall tomorrow? We'll do it."

"Beltran [then said], 'I have a lot of powerful friends, and they'll be very disappointed if we get fired,' " Penilla said.

Another of the council members, Salvador Rios, said that Beltran talked to him too.

"He says he can do anything to keep us in office, but don't fire [him]," Rios said. "And I said, 'What could you do?' And he said, 'I could stop the recall just for you.' "

Beltran and Leal deny making the statements.

In Commerce, a different form of pressure was applied.

Leal admits he launched a retaliatory campaign to punish the councilman he held most responsible for firing him by targeting the councilman's half-brother, a school board member, for electoral defeat. Leal said he now regrets that move, which he attributes to letting his anger and hurt get the better of him.

He also wrote a petition to recall the councilman.

Then something strange happened.

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