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COLUMN ONE

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

Facing recall, the councilman, Hugo Argumedo, suddenly reversed himself and voted to rehire Leal.

Exactly what persuaded Argumedo to change his mind remains unclear since Argumedo would not explain himself for this article. But someone who knows him said Argumedo explained to him that he acted under duress, after he was told that the lawyers would dump big money into the recall campaign against him unless he changed his mind.

Leal and Beltran deny making any such threats.

In Lynwood, Polanco himself became involved.

A council member, Ricardo Sanchez, said that Polanco, the state Senate majority leader, told him that a recall attempt against Sanchez could be stopped if the firm were rehired.

Sanchez had broken away from Lynwood's first-ever Latino City Council majority, which had hired the firm, and formed a new majority with two black council members, which had fired Leal and Beltran.

Sanchez said Polanco told him, "We should work things out. The recall could die if we allowed these people to come back."

Sanchez said Polanco referred to Leal in their conversations as "his boy."

Polanco, whose public demeanor is perennially buttoned down, denied threatening Sanchez and denied referring to Leal as his "boy." "I don't talk like that," the senator said.

He said he met with Sanchez and other members of the Latino bloc, at Sanchez's request, to see if he could repair a breach between Sanchez and Leal and patch up the fractured Latino majority.

"I sit down and I tell them . . . 'Look, you guys are just getting started. You've got to learn to work together,' " Polanco said.

The senator said he has no financial ties to Beltran and Leal, other than that they have made campaign contributions to him, and merely supports them as qualified lawyers in a field that "has been closed to ethnic minority law firms."

Beltran and Leal's reputed involvement in recalls, and a perception that they are closely tied to Polanco, have contributed to an atmosphere of fear even in cities where there were no recalls. Some council members who are already known as dissidents were cautious about what they would say. "I don't feel comfortable being quoted by name in any article regarding [them]," said one.

Bell Gardens

Bell Gardens is a 2 1/2-square-mile city of 40,000 in southeast Los Angeles County that was settled by whites fleeing the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and incorporated in 1961. Thirty years later, it became the cradle of the current Mexican American political ascension, when a Latino voting majority recalled a nearly all-white City Council.

Beltran, then a real estate lawyer active in politics, was involved in that recall effort through an organization called NEWS for America, whose "news" was that Mexican Americans no longer needed to wait and practice coalition-building with other ethnic groups since they were so numerous--N(orth), E(ast), W(est) and S(outh).

Two years after the Bell Gardens recall, its local leader, Maria Chacon, herself won election to the council, and Beltran became city attorney. Chacon put together her own three-member slate of council candidates to join her on the governing body in 1997.

Beltran backed this slate--which he knew, if successful, would contain his future employers--by asking political friends to contribute. There was nothing illegal or unusual about that. Some city attorneys or would-be city attorneys do not do it because they take a long view that contributions aimed at making friends also, unavoidably, make enemies of the friends' opponents. But Beltran's view was: "Unless and until the rules change, I'm going to help people who help me."

Shortly after the slate was elected, trouble erupted between its members and Chacon and that led to her effort to recall them.

As tensions mounted, former Bell Gardens Planning Commissioner Alfredo Martinez said that Beltran told him repeatedly that a recall was in the works against the slate, even before a petition was filed. "He said, 'These bozos don't believe we're going to recall them,' " Martinez said. Beltran denies making the remark.

Many issues were involved. One was the use of city funds to subsidize a single-family-home development to be built in part by TELACU, an acronym for The East Los Angeles Community Union. TELACU is an influential nonprofit community development corporation, containing profit-making subsidiaries, that has long been a mainstay in providing Polanco with financial and political support.

Financing for the Bell Gardens portion of TELACU's 53-house project, which extended into neighboring Commerce, was contingent on a $2-million Bell Gardens loan.

The City Council initially gave the project a green light. But Chacon's handpicked council members, David Torres, Salvador Rios and Joaquin Penilla, had second thoughts. They said they worried that the loan might not be repaid and that houses, which they said were to be sold for $150,000 or more, would prove too expensive for most Bell Gardens residents.

Beltran stepped in to try to save the deal, Rios said.

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