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South Gate City Hall, 2 Officials' Homes Raided in Corruption Probe


Investigators searching for illegal firearms Wednesday combed the home and City Hall office of South Gate Treasurer Albert Robles, signaling a new phase in the ongoing political corruption probe in the troubled city.

While City Hall visitors watched, investigators from the district attorney's public integrity unit scoured Robles' office for a silencer and illegal firearms modified to accommodate the use of a silencer. It was not clear if any illegal weapons were found. The district attorney's office would not comment.

Robles, who was not arrested, has admitted that he owns handguns, but his attorney, Tom Brown, said the search for illegal weapons would be futile. "They might as well be looking for a pink elephant with white dots," Brown said as authorities searched Robles' two-story townhouse.

Brown said he thinks authorities suspect Robles of being involved in the 1999 shooting of then-Mayor Henry Gonzalez, a political rival. Gonzalez was not seriously injured in the crime, which has not been solved.

"Albert has absolutely no knowledge of who may have done such a thing," Brown said.

In a separate probe, investigators served search warrants Wednesday at the home of Councilwoman Maria Benavides, who they suspect lied about her residency to qualify for the 2000 ballot. Numerous documents were seized at City Hall, including a divorce settlement in which Benavides stated that she lived in El Monte during the 2000 campaign. The 29-year-old beautician was not available for comment.

The raids marked a significant expansion of the nearly yearlong corruption investigation. Though several of Robles' supporters have been charged with electoral fraud, Wednesday's actions signaled that elected officials are now targets and that the probe has broadened beyond election-related wrongdoing.

"I screamed I was so happy," said City Clerk Carmen Avalos. "This is a blessing for our city."

Many residents in the community of 96,000 showed up at City Hall to shake hands and take pictures of investigators, hailing them as heroes.

But others said the district attorney's office was being used by Robles' political enemies. "I don't believe that Albert Robles would ever own a silencer," said City Atty. Salvador Alva.

The raids came a few days after Secretary of State Bill Jones announced an unprecedented plan to monitor the city's elections. The community has been rocked in recent years by electoral fraud allegations and violent incidents that police suspect are politically motivated.

Robles, widely considered to be the city's most powerful official, has been a target of residents' protests since his allies assumed control of the council in 2000.

Once a rising Latino political figure--Robles finished second in the 1998 Democratic primary for state treasurer--his star has dimmed under persistent allegations of misusing public funds. Last year, residents launched a voter recall drive against him and his council allies. In 2000, voters slashed his salary from $76,500 to $7,500.

Robles keeps a low profile at City Hall and hasn't been to a council meeting in months. He has said that he sleeps with a 9-millimeter handgun next to his bed and wouldn't hesitate to use it against an intruder.

"If you knock down my door, chances are I'm going to put some lead in between your eyes," he said in an interview last year.

Brown said Robles' interest in guns stems from his desire to be a law enforcement officer. Robles attended a police academy last year, but did not graduate.

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