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South Gate Treasurer Arrested

Politics: Albert Robles is held on $500,000 bail for allegedly threatening rivals in long-running feud.

April 06, 2002|RICHARD MAROSI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Authorities descended on the home of South Gate Treasurer Albert Robles on Friday and arrested the politician for allegedly threatening other public officials.

Among those Robles allegedly made threats against were Assemblyman Marco Antonio Firebaugh, state Sen. Martha Escutia and a South Gate police officer, according to sources close to the investigation.

Some of the threats involved murder, they said.

Robles was arrested without incident outside his townhouse and taken to the Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles, where he was booked on criminal threat charges and on suspicion of possessing illegal weapons. His bail was set at $500,000.

The arrest is the latest in a series of cases launched against Robles or his allies that appear aimed at dismantling what critics have called a political machine in the city of 96,000.

Both Escutia and Firebaugh have been at odds with Robles, the city's perceived political boss. They have backed opposing candidates and asked state officials to intervene in the city's notoriously ugly elections.

Prosecutors would not provide details about the nature of the threats; formal charges won't be filed until Monday. But Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley said Robles' arrest "symbolizes that public corruption will no longer be tolerated in this county."

"We mean business.... Democracy and good government cannot succeed in an atmosphere of intimidation, threats and violence," said Cooley in a statement.

Robles' attorney, Tom Brown, accused Cooley of political meddling, and said the district attorney was being used as a tool by Robles' enemies.

"It's politics. For many years Albert has known that he's had some very powerful political enemies, including Firebaugh and Escutia. This is their way at getting back at Albert," he said.

The arrest sent shock waves throughout the working-class city in southeast Los Angeles County, where Robles has long been a controversial and volatile figure.

"I don't think Albert is the kind of person who would make threats on another person's life," said City Atty. Salvador Alva. "He's a person who chooses his words very carefully."

But critics were not surprised, saying Robles' threats were long a part of his hardball political style.

"It's a good day," said Councilman Hector De La Torre. "It shows that you can't go around berating people, intimidating people, bullying people. That's what this guy has been doing for several years in this city."

Robles, 37, has long been at odds with Firebaugh and Escutia, Democrats who represent state legislative districts that include South Gate. But tensions heated up in recent years as Robles emerged as a political force in the city.

Perhaps the most public feud emerged last year when Escutia and Robles battled over a plan to build a power plant in South Gate. Escutia backed the construction of the plant while Robles led a successful citywide effort to sink the plan.

Robles often used strong language in denouncing Escutia during the months-long standoff, and in one television interview called her a "pig at the trough."

The allegation regarding the police officer is believed to stem from the city's attempts last year to install a new deputy chief. In retaliation, the police unions helped launch a recall drive against Robles, saying he was scheming to gain control of the force.

Several union officials have been outspoken critics of Robles, who has said city police are paid too much for too little service.

His tough talk was in keeping with a brash persona and his willingness to take on the political establishment.

"I haven't been the most tactful person in dealing with powerful politicians that I think are trying to do harm to our community," he said in a recent interview.

But Robles also said that, despite his history of using strong language, he has never crossed the line. Strong language, he said, merely reflects his passion.

"How do I paint a picture with the full palette of colors, so that as many people as possible can see what the problem is?" said Robles.

"If I just paint the picture in gray with a little black, it's an empty picture. But if I put my heart, my soul, my reputation, my career on the line, those are all the different colors that paint a fuller picture."

Robles' arrest comes three months after authorities raided his home in a search for illegal weapons, including a silencer. Numerous weapons were confiscated during the raid, including assault rifles. Brown, Robles' attorney, said Robles has registered all the weapons.

The charges could provide a knockout punch to the political career of one of the county's most controversial politicians. His career peaked in 1998, when he placed second in the Democratic primary for state treasurer.

But since then, allegations of corruption and self-dealing have dogged him. His 10-year career has paralleled the city's descent into political chaos, in which candidates have been viciously attacked in hit-piece mailers and occasional violence has marred campaigns.

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