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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

But Leal would not provide one. Leal said that he was concerned Rail Cycle could sue the city and win and advised that a better course was to wait, since the project might die of natural causes.

Argumedo would not be interviewed for this article, but associates described him as fed up with what he saw as Leal dragging his feet. He engineered Leal's firing and the hiring of a replacement who said that the city would be on solid legal ground stripping Rail Cycle of its permit.

Rail Cycle sued, and Leal's replacement, interim City Atty. Fernando Villa, won in court, persuading a judge that Rail Cycle could not reserve land indefinitely for future use. The company has appealed.

Leal and some of his associates, meanwhile, set out to punish Argumedo for having fired Leal.

Initially, they targeted Argumedo's half-brother, Hector Chacon, the effective head of Argumedo's local political family, who at the time was running for reelection to the school board of Montebello Unified, which also serves Commerce and nearby cities.

Leal and others associated with either Polanco or the law firm helped fund a campaign committee, called Parents for a Better Education, whose sole purpose was to defeat Hector Chacon.

Leal launched and directed the committee without Beltran's knowledge, both men say.

Polanco denies any connection with Rail Cycle or the committee.

The committee's records show that besides Leal, key donors included David J. Olivas, another lawyer who worked for the Beltran-Leal firm; George Castro, a financial manager who is Polanco's brother-in-law; George Pla, a longtime TELACU insider who heads Cordoba, a consulting firm; and Dario Frommer, then an attorney-lobbyist subcontractor for the Beltran-Leal firm. Frommer later became Gov. Gray Davis' appointments secretary, recommending to the governor who should get patronage jobs in state government, and is now an Assembly candidate from Los Angeles.

Chacon would not agree to be interviewed for this article.

However, his campaign consultant, Phil Giarrizzo, said his client had no doubt where his opposition was coming from. Chacon identified "the people who want to see me defeated because of my brother" as "Polanco, Leal," the consultant said.

Chacon, who had been the school board's top vote-getter, barely survived the challenge, finishing in third place with only three seats up for grabs.

Leal also wrote a petition to recall Argumedo.

He wrote it at the request of Edgar S. Miles, a Commerce activist who had reasons of his own to target Argumedo, according to both Miles and Leal.

Faced with the possibility of being recalled, Argumedo suddenly reversed himself on the question of Leal as city attorney and voted to rehire him.

Someone who knows Argumedo, who was interviewed on condition that his name not be published, said the councilman explained to him that the change of position was made under duress. "They told me, if we didn't take them back, they'd put $30,000 into the recall against me," the source quoted Argumedo as having said.

Leal and Beltran deny having made such a threat.

Leal suggested that Argumedo voted to rehire him for another reason. Leal said that the law firm that replaced his was costing more. The increased legal fees had become a big issue in the recall.

Who was behind the recall remains something of an official mystery.

Donors to the effort were not enumerated in a campaign report. Miles said that was because no contributor gave more than $100 and therefore names did not have to be disclosed under state law.

But not everyone believed that the recall was exclusively the grass-roots effort it seemed to be.

Bill Orozco, a political operative and one-time aide to former state Senate majority leader David Roberti, said he believed one of Roberti's successors, Polanco, was behind it.

He said he visited Polanco to try to persuade him to call off the recall, which had also targeted an Argumedo council ally.

"I told Polanco, 'Can we stop that [recall] taking place in Commerce?' " Orozco said. "And he said, 'No, I'm going to see that the two candidates are recalled.' He said, 'I didn't like what they did to people who are loyal to [me], so I'm going to punish them and take them out of office.' "

The two candidates were indeed recalled, although Argumedo later won reelection.

Polanco said that his alleged conversation with Orozco never took place. "People are going to say things and do things and create things based on sour grapes, and I think I get credited at times for things that I have very little to do with," the senator said. In fact, he said: "I had nothing to do with that recall."

Lynwood

If Bell Gardens was ground zero in Latino takeovers of city councils from whites, Lynwood was ground zero in Latino takeovers from blacks.

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