More than 150 county and federal investigators fanned out across South Gate on Thursday morning, serving search warrants at City Hall and the homes of leading officials in the biggest show of force yet against alleged political corruption there.
For much of the day, City Hall teemed with about two dozen blue-jacketed district attorney's investigators who scoured several offices, aided by a joint FBI-Secret Service computer fraud task force.
Authorities, suspecting theft of public funds, seized numerous documents, including financial statements and canceled checks. The records focus on an attorney hired by the city, Clifton Albright, who has been accused of using public funds to organize voter recall drives against officials.
Albright, in an interview, denied wrongdoing and criticized investigators for seizing items from his downtown Los Angeles office.
"It's sad they would come to my home and office and take our computers, because we are a law firm and South Gate is not our only client," Albright said.
Prosecutors say Thursday's raid was one of the biggest in the history of Los Angeles political corruption investigations. It contrasted sharply with previous years, when watchdog groups charged that the district attorney failed to investigate allegations of official corruption. The search warrant affidavit cited 15 locations, and numerous vehicles, to be searched by investigators.
Authorities, targeting officials suspected of being linked to Albright, also served search warrants at the homes or offices of Treasurer Albert Robles, Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba, Vice Mayor Raul Moriel, Councilwoman Maria Benavides, City Atty. Salvador Alva, acting City Manager Dennis Young and attorney Julia Sylva.
The raid marked the latest round in several ongoing investigations by federal and local authorities in the city of 96,000 residents in southeast Los Angeles County. It created a now-familiar scene at City Hall, with investigators searching through files, and officials issuing denials to reporters as citizens hounded the officials' every step.
Setting up for a news conference in the council chambers, several cameramen asked residents to identify the deputy city manager, Jesus M. Marez, who was expected to make a statement.
"He'll be the one perspiring," said Pascual Cervera, an outspoken critic.
Marez complained that the district attorney's office conducted the raid without warning. "Despite ... the potential disruption and daunting prospect of numerous investigators descending on City Hall this morning, we continue to work for the citizens of South Gate," he said.
"Liar!" several citizens screamed as the cameras rolled.
At the center of the investigation is Albright, whose downtown Los Angeles law firm, Albright, Yee & Schmit, was hired last year to handle labor and personnel issues for the city.
A constant presence at public meetings, Albright has long been criticized by Councilmen Hector De La Torre and Henry Gonzalez for his billing practices. In the last six months, he has charged about $1.2 million, and officials had long failed to meet requests by De La Torre and Gonzalez for detailed information on Albright's work.
This week, after the FBI subpoenaed all attorney and consultant contracts in a separate investigation, officials finally provided some billing details.
In a rare public statement at Monday's regular City Council meeting, Albright acknowledged accidentally duplicating billings of $6,000, an admission that was met with a mocking swipe by De La Torre.
Albright insists that all his work was authorized by Young, the acting city manager, and Alva, the city attorney, and points out that he provided a comprehensive report on all of his work to the council Monday. The probe seems to focus on allegations by Gonzalez and City Clerk Carmen Avalos that Albright helped organize recall elections against them.
Avalos has told authorities that a messenger once tried to submit recall papers with the letterhead of Albright's firm on the documents. Realizing his mistake, the messenger withdrew the papers, according to Avalos.
Avalos, along with Gonzalez, later confronted Albright's assistant, Cristeta Klaparda, in her City Hall office. "Cristeta had a copy of the recall," Gonzalez said in an interview. "'Are you involved in this recall?' I asked her, and she just got all nervous."
Klaparda was not available for comment.
Albright denies that his firm had anything to do with the recall papers. "Our firm has not been leading any recall, and has not billed the city in regards to those individuals," he said.
The district attorney's raid is the latest targeting city leaders or their allies. Last month, Treasurer Robles was charged with making murderous threats against public officials.
Mayor Ruvalcaba, as she has in the past, said the investigations are politically motivated attacks. Investigators, she said, searched her home and car for three hours and only seized a couple of items, including a computer disk.
"Steve Cooley should be ashamed of himself," she said of the district attorney. "This is getting to the point where he is harassing innocent people such as myself."
But many others cheered the investigators, even shaking their hands and patting them on the back as they walked through City Hall.
Marilyn Logan, a 36-year resident, was sleeping when friends notified her of the raid by telephone.
"I just jumped out of bed and flew over here," said Logan, who spent much of the morning hounding city officials. "I think it's fantastic."