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7 Ordered to Stay Clear of 2 South Gate Officials

Los Angeles

Politics: Mayor and councilwoman get restraining orders against residents. Meanwhile, council OKs $100,000 to pay for city treasurer's legal defense.

April 23, 2002|JOSE CARDENAS and GEOFFREY MOHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In the latest chapter in South Gate's running political drama--awash in recall drives and corruption investigations--two City Council members have obtained temporary restraining orders against seven residents accused of everything from stalking to physical assaults.

In a separate development, the council on Monday night voted to pay the criminal defense fees of city Treasurer Albert Robles. He was arrested April 5 on suspicion of making terrorist threats against Assemblyman Marco Antonio Firebaugh, state Sen. Martha Escutia and a South Gate police officer. He also is accused of possessing two illegal assault weapons, including a semiautomatic rifle.

The restraining orders against residents were obtained by Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba and Councilwoman Maria Benavides. The orders, issued by a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge in Norwalk, prevent the residents from coming within 50 yards of the officials.

But the seven--Sam and Marilyn Echols, Joseph Ruiz, Veronica Molina, Pascual Cervera, Shirley Bobrick and Frank Rivera--will be allowed to attend the usually raucous City Council meetings.

Benavides said she has "stopped going to events because ... I didn't feel safe walking along the street."

The subjects of the restraining orders could not be reached for comment.

The declarations filed in support of the restraining orders include descriptions of the city officials being followed around town and even an incident in which Ruvalcaba and Benavides were allegedly hit with bundles of paper in a City Hall conference room.

The mayor and councilwoman say they are most disturbed because it's the female officials who are being targeted.

"Being a woman," said Ruvalcaba, "it's really hard to be in the environment where we are."

Meanwhile, by a 3-2 vote, council members agreed in closed session Monday to pay the Los Angeles law firm of Sheppard, Mullin and Hampton a $100,000 retainer for the city treasurer's defense.

Council members Henry Gonzalez and Hector De La Torre dissented. Those who voted to pay for the defense, Ruvalcaba and council members Raul Moriel and Benavides are--along with Robles-- the subjects of a recall drive launched by residents who allege corruption. They have denied the accusations.

Gonzalez said he thinks ''it's wrong to expend the taxpayers' money to defend a public official for something that, like I said, is not job-related."

He noted that the city has already paid $114,000 in legal fees on the Robles case.

De La Torre said that the council arrived at its vote by determining that Robles' actions were ''in the scope of Mr. Robles' job and there was no malice there, and that it is in the best interest of the city to get involved in it.'' He called those conclusions ''ludicrous on their face.'

"He can ... have the defense he wants,'' he said of Robles. ''But we shouldn't have to pay for it."

The decision was met with groans from about 100 residents in the council chambers.

"They have the right to decide, but it's the wrong decision," said Rafael Aguila, 65, a 22-year resident of South Gate. "We aren't supposed to pay for all the wrongdoings of politicians. That's the bottom line. It's not fair."

Council member and Vice Mayor Moriel, who voted in favor of the retainer, clarified that the council voted not to defend Robles against the weapons possession charges--only against the allegations of terrorist threats.

Robles has been charged by the district attorney's office with seven felony counts alleging that he has threatened to harm--including to murder--several people he considers political enemies.

Prosecutors allege that among other threats, Robles told two people, one of them a Lynwood official, that he wanted to harm Escutia and her husband, Leo Briones. "If I could get away with it, I'd have [Briones] killed and rape [Escutia]," he is alleged to have said.

Robles has denied the charges.Through his attorney, Robles has claimed that the case is a politically motivated punishment for standing up to powerful political figures in southeast Los Angeles. He said he uses strong language against his opponents, but that such language merely reflects his strong convictions.

If he is found guilty, the 37-year-old faces up to eight years in prison.

*

Times staff writer Jessica Garrison contributed to this story .

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