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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

A three-member Latino council slate wrested control of the city from black politicians in 1997, with the aide of an independent expenditure campaign financed by an out-of-town billboard company looking for business opportunities and managed by the political consultant-husband of state Sen. Escutia.

After the slate won, Leal sought the city attorney's job and said he asked Polanco to lobby on his behalf. Polanco acknowledges providing a reference.

Leal got the job but lasted--as did slate unity--less than a year.

Slate member Ricardo Sanchez had a series of disagreements with his fellow Latinos on the council, who subsequently launched a recall campaign against him. Sanchez then allied himself with two black council members, forming a new majority which named him mayor and fired Leal. Sanchez blamed the lawyer--Leal says inaccurately--for playing a role in the recall attempt.

Leal said he once again turned to Polanco for help.

Polanco paid Sanchez a visit.

There are two very different accounts of what happened next.

Sanchez and a friend whose account was read into the record at a public meeting said that the senator told Sanchez that the recall attempt could be stopped, if he came back into the fold and voted to rehire Leal and/or a Latino city manager who had also gotten the ax.

"He was saying, 'We should work things out. The recall could die,' " Sanchez said.

Leal and Polanco deny that Polanco made that statement. Polanco said he had nothing to do with the recall attempt in Lynwood. He said he spoke generally, as a peacemaker. "I sit down and I tell them . . . 'Look, you guys are just getting started. You've got to learn to work together.' "

Leal says he regards what happened in Lynwood as "a tragic story, where a Latino community has been empowered but has been unable to overcome differences for a greater good."

He portrays himself as something of an idealist, trying to help "well-intentioned, humble individuals who want to improve these cities," but don't have the education or experience to do so.

Sanchez is not buying this. He survived the recall attempt when a petition alleging numerous improprieties on his part was invalidated for lack of enough valid signatures. But he remains embittered. "I have a lot of hate," he said. "They made me look like the worst guy in the whole world."

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