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Conflict-of-Interest Allegations Probed by D.A.'s Office

El Monte: Councilman Thurston's votes in favor of two contracts for companies that employed him are being investigated, officials say.

June 28, 2002|RICHARD WINTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Los Angeles district attorney's office is investigating whether an El Monte councilman violated a state conflict-of-interest law during the last year when he voted on two separate contracts for his employers, law enforcement sources said.

Investigators with the district attorney's Public Integrity Unit are examining Jack Thurston's employment at an El Monte car dealership last July and at a South El Monte towing company since April, the sources said.

Thurston denies any wrongdoing, saying that in both cases his employment was unrelated to the votes. He said he has not been contacted by investigators.

"I am always careful to avoid conflicts of interest," said the councilman, reached at the towing company.

Thurston received a state license July 16 to sell vehicles at a local Hyundai dealership, records show. The next day, Thurston voted to approve an agreement between the city and his new boss that provided exclusive rights to negotiate with the city for some prime real estate occupied by homes and businesses for a possible dealership expansion.

Thurston, 66, quit the job after working at the dealership for a month and receiving a commission and two paychecks.

The 11-year councilman began working in April at Freddie Mac's Towing Inc. On April 2, Thurston voted with the council majority in a 3-2 decision to award the towing company a contract to provide towing services for the El Monte police. Thurston said that he was approached after that vote to work at the company and took a job as a dispatcher.

Sandi Gibbons, a spokeswoman for the district attorney's office, said the office would not discuss any ongoing investigation.

Department of Motor Vehicles officials said Thurston sought and received a license to work as a car salesman for the parent company of Famous Ed's Hyundai on July 16.

On July 17, the City Council, sitting as the redevelopment agency board, approved a contract to give Scott Gunderson exclusive rights to negotiate with the city to obtain a four- to six-acre site north of the San Bernardino Freeway.

At the time, Gunderson was seeking the city's help to expand Famous Ed's, which he owns with partner Ed Dominguez. He also wanted to relocate his Scott Pontiac GMC dealership, on Valley Boulevard, next to Famous Ed's on Santa Anita Avenue.

Thurston said he began work at the Hyundai dealership on July 21, four days after the council approved the agreement with Gunderson. According to Thurston, he consulted with the city attorney and was told he could vote. Dominguez said he was trying to help out a person who wanted a job and it had nothing to do with the request before the council.

California's Government Code 1090 forbids public officials from being "financially interested in any contract made by them in their official capacity." City officers with financial interests in a contract are not to vote or participate in a contract decision.

Those convicted of violating the law can be thrown out of office. Municipal lawyers say agreements for exclusive negotiations--such as the one the El Monte City Council approved--are considered contracts that fall within the provisions of that law.

Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Wilson told The Times last year in a story on Thurston's employment that under the law, a "financial interest" isn't narrowly defined as a payment to a public official. He said the expectation of employment can generate a conflict.

Wilson has since been assigned to examine Thurston's action, documents show.

The investigation was in part prompted by a complaint filed with prosecutors by El Monte School Board member Ed Wallach, husband of former Mayor Patricia Wallach. "Who does he represent, the city or his employers?" Wallach said.

David Demejian, the deputy district attorney who heads the Public Integrity Unit, recently wrote to Wallach confirming the probe.

Freddie Mac Towing served the city along with Albert's Tow until 2001, when the El Monte police decided to go with one firm because of a lack of work.

When Police Chief Kenneth Weldon took over the department, he recommended rehiring Freddie Mac's Towing and splitting the city. On April 2, with Thurston providing the key vote, Freddie Mac won the right to tow vehicles in the southern part of the city.

Meanwhile, plans to expand the car dealership have changed.

Gunderson is continuing to work with the city to expand his dealerships at the site, bordered on the west by Santa Anita Avenue and on the east by Granada Avenue.

Plans now call for the project to take one house on the Santa Anita Avenue side of the project instead of 12 or more on Granada Avenue.

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