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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

He said Beltran called him to arrange a private meeting between him, Polanco and the key developer, TELACU President David Lizarraga's son, Michael, who is TELACU's executive vice president.

Beltran denies setting up the meeting.

At the meeting, which Penilla also said he attended, Rios said Polanco pushed for the housing project, saying it would be good for the city.

Polanco, who early in his career worked for TELACU, acknowledged attending. "I was invited to give a recommendation . . . on the experience of TELACU as a housing [developer] and to share with them history about the organization . . . and I did, as I have done for others who I believe are capable and qualified and, if given the shot, will do a good job," he said.

Rios and Penilla remained unmoved, and together with Torres, voted against the project.

As a recall movement against all three gathered steam, they also moved to fire Beltran. Leal said he then stepped in to try to prevent the loss of a "million-dollar" account. "I'm the relationships guy," Leal said. "I can ask. I can plead. . . . Arnoldo [Beltran] can't."

Leal said he sought out council member Penilla to make "mostly a plea based on loyalty."

Leal, as well as Beltran, denies Penilla's account that Leal offered to call off the recall against Penilla in return for Penilla's vote.

Leal said it was absurd to imagine that he would say he could stop a recall inspired by Chacon, the most influential politician in town.

Rios, however, said that first Beltran and then Chacon herself made similar pitches to him.

Rios said Beltran told him: "I could stop the recall just for you."

Then Chacon joined their conversation and said, as Rios tells it: "If you don't fire Beltran, we can keep you in office."

Beltran denies saying he would call off a recall. But he acknowledged that he listened as Chacon said "basically, 'We want to work with you.' Obviously, the comment means, 'We don't want you out of office.' "

Chacon said: "I don't recall that at all."

Penilla and Rios, along with their ally, Torres, went ahead with their vote to fire Beltran.

Beltran responded by helping to raise money for their recall. "Some of my friends contributed," he said.

Polanco reported giving $1,000 through a campaign committee he controlled.

Saying that was his only involvement in the recall, he explained that he gave the money to help Chacon, who "has been a strong friend and supporter of all of us." By "all of us," he said he meant himself and Democratic state Sen. Martha Escutia, a lawyer whose legislative career he launched in 1992 by helping her win election to the state Assembly representing Bell Gardens and other southeast cities. He also included Democratic Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh, a former Polanco aide who became a law clerk and lobbyist for the Beltran and Leal firm, and then last year, Polanco's choice to replace Escutia in the Assembly.

Escutia's campaign records show that she, too, sent a $1,000-contribution to the Bell Gardens recall committee. She sent it to the address of the Beltran and Leal law firm in downtown Los Angeles.

The recall was successful.

The day after new City Council members were sworn in, Beltran was rehired.

The new members, who had campaigned on a pledge to approve the TELACU project, quickly did that too.

Commerce

Commerce is a small industrial city six miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles that boasts that it has no local property or utility taxes. Established in 1960 when industrialists and homeowners decided they would be better off incorporating than risking annexation, the city has more than 40,000 workers but only 12,000 residents.

Leal got the Commerce city attorney job in 1994 and kept it until 1997, when City Councilman Hugo Argumedo led a move to oust him. Leal attributed their squabble to personnel matters. There were also disagreements about a multimillion-dollar project known as Rail Cycle.

Rail Cycle was to involve construction of a giant facility in Commerce to remove recyclables from 8 million pounds of garbage that would be trucked daily into the city from other towns. The remainder of the waste would be put on trains bound for a landfill in the San Bernardino County desert.

The project's partners, Waste Management Inc. and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Co., hired a well-connected Latino political figure, Robert Morales, a longtime aide to former state Sen. Art Torres, the current state Democratic Party chairman, as their consultant. His job was to drum up community support for the project.

With Morales' help, Rail Cycle won a conditional use permit from the City Council in late 1992. But four years later, when Argumedo was running for council on a campaign against the project, major construction had still not begun. Rail Cycle's partners cited unforeseen delays in winning approval for their desert landfill.

Citing the inaction, Argumedo asked Leal for a legal opinion that he could use to revoke Rail Cycle's conditional use permit.

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