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Official Adds to Intrigue in Carson

Probe: Councilman who changed his vote on a controversial trash-hauling contract was secretly cooperating with FBI, his lawyer says.

April 20, 2002|TED ROHRLICH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Carson councilman was secretly cooperating with the FBI when he cast the deciding vote to approve a controversial trash-hauling contract, then later cast the deciding vote this week to rescind it, his lawyer said Friday.

"He didn't flip-flop," attorney Jose Y. Lauchengco Jr. said of his client, Councilman Manuel Ontal.

"There has been a culture of corruption in that city in the awarding of contracts. Manny Ontal got fed up with it and he wanted to put a stop to it, and he did."

Lauchengco refused to say whether Ontal approached the FBI. "Let's put it this way," he said. "My client took the initiative."

In February, Ontal voted with Mayor Daryl Sweeney and Councilwoman Raunda Frank to approve an exclusive, multimillion-dollar commercial waste hauling contract with Browning Ferris Industries.

The contract was controversial. BFI eventually said at a public council meeting that it had hired Sweeney's personal lawyer, who was also employed as an attorney for the city.

A BFI executive told the City Council that the lawyer, Robert Pryce, had faxed secret bid amounts submitted by a BFI competitor to the city.

Even after learning that BFI had received the fax, the council majority allowed the firm to lower its bid.

BFI's competitor, Waste Management Inc., told The Times that it had earlier passed up a chance to hire Pryce after Sweeney recommended him.

Waste Management said it declined after Pryce asked for $1 million for help in delivering a council majority.

Asked why Ontal had originally voted for the contract, Lauchengco said: "The only intelligent answer to that is that the natural course of events must be permitted to take place."

In other words, he was then asked, a crime must be allowed to be committed if it is to be prosecuted?

"Right," the lawyer responded.

No one has been charged with any crime.

On Tuesday, FBI agents searched the residences of Sweeney and Frank and the Gardena office of BFI.

Government officials have refused to say what they were looking for, noting that warrants authorizing the searches have been sealed by court order.

Sweeney has declined through an attorney to be interviewed. Frank and Pryce have not responded to repeated requests for interviews. Messages left Friday for Ontal on his voice mail were not returned.

A BFI spokesman has declined to comment. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office also declined to comment.

Ontal stunned political watchers in the city of 90,000 on Wednesday by switching sides in the contract debate. He voted with council members Kay Calas and Jim Dear to overturn the BFI contract.

Lauchengco suggested that Ontal changed his vote to right a wrong.

After the vote, Ontal announced his intention to resign effective in June.

He told the packed council chambers that residents deserve a decision-making process that is "honest and fair."

Ontal's lawyer said Friday that his client is not facing arrest.

He suggested, but would not confirm, that FBI agents are protecting Ontal, acknowledging that four FBI agents accompanied Ontal when he left the meeting after announcing his resignation.

The lawyer also said FBI agents are investigating other government actions in Carson.

On Friday, The Times reported that another firm seeking to do business in Carson, Rand Pearlman Ventures, said Sweeney also had strongly urged it to hire Pryce as a lobbyist.

Developer Richard Rand said Pryce asked him, among other things, for a 10% equity stake in a planned $300-million shopping center to be anchored by Wal-Mart.

The developer refused, and lost the business opportunity to a competitor.

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