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Officials' Arrests Send Aftershock Through Carson

November 23, 2002|Jean Merl | Times Staff Writer

Reaction to the arrests of several current and former Carson city officials on bribery charges this week ranged from disappointment to relief, much of it laced with a strong dose of I-told-you-so's.

The arrests also prompted longtime civic activists, along with one of the two council members not involved in the corruption case, to step up their calls for campaign-finance reforms and a new municipal ethics program. They said corruption is inevitable when business interests fund winning candidates' elections, as is often the case in this South Bay city of nearly 90,000.

City Hall, which operates on a four-day, 10-hour schedule, was closed Friday, but that did not slow the buzz that erupted Thursday, when Mayor Daryl Sweeney, Councilwoman Raunda Frank and several others were charged with extorting money from businesses or related crimes. Officials were also trying to grapple with the logistics of conducting the public's business under a cloud that already has left one council seat empty and forced cancellation of several council meetings for lack of a quorum.

The arrests capped a corruption probe that surfaced last spring, when Councilman Manny Ontal abruptly resigned amid accusations from a commercial trash-hauler that the mayor and others had solicited what appeared to be a bribe. Ontal, who also was arrested Thursday, had earlier confessed his own part in the apparent corruption and offered to help expose the others, according to prosecutors.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 26, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 318 words Type of Material: Correction
Carson investigation -- A story in Saturday's California section erroneously stated that former Carson Councilman Manny Ontal had been arrested in connection with a federal corruption probe. Ontal approached federal authorities about corruption in Carson and agreed to work undercover while they investigated. He agreed to plead guilty to one count of accepting a $5,000 payoff from a city contractor and of failing to report $33,000 in consultant's income on his tax return.

"My first reaction, although saddened that this investigation would be needed, is that of relief," said Rita Boggs, a city planning commissioner and longtime civic activist who has carefully followed news reports of the unfolding federal investigation.

"I am grateful that Manny Ontal had the courage to speak up," Boggs said. But she expressed concern about how the commission, which helps make decisions on private development proposals, could continue to function.

Seven of the commission's nine members are Sweeney appointees, Boggs said. They presumably would be replaced if Sweeney, who has pleaded not guilty, is eventually convicted and removed from office.

Others expressed disappointment in the mayor, who was portrayed in a grand jury indictment as the ringleader in the alleged bribery and extortion scheme.

"He had so much to offer society and the community when he was first elected," said Parks and Recreation Commissioner Harry E. "Buddy" Barron. "If this is true, it really hurts. If true, it means he robbed me and the other citizens of Carson, and that is really a shame."

For former Mayor Gil Smith, a member of the first City Council after Carson's incorporation in 1968, Thursday's developments were especially disheartening, because they marked the third major corruption scandal in the city he and others worked so hard to found.

This one "undoubtedly will impact on the morale and image and prestige of the city, and it will undoubtedly have an impact on the city's ability to conduct business," Smith said.

"But I just have to hold onto the hope that it will strengthen the resolve of future candidates" to run an honest government, he said. "It has taken a while, but the city has always overcome" past scandals.

Former Councilwoman Vera Robles DeWitt, who led an unsuccessful ballot initiative to halt the city's practice of limiting commercial trash pickup to a single hauler, said she felt vindicated by Thursday's arrests.

"It's a sad day for the city," DeWitt said Friday, "but, basically, I have spent the last two years and a lot of money ... to bring about lawful contracting practices. In a way, it's kind of great to be vindicated.

"I know the city will heal, and we will go forward, but it's time we get some new leadership," she said.

Former Mayor Mike Mitoma, a member of the Alliance for Honest Government, said he too feels vindicated. The alliance is a group of 25 to 30 residents who lobby for more-open government practices.

"We've been out there yelling and screaming that there is corruption in City Hall, and we just get ignored and called gadflies," Mitoma said. "Now this comes to light. We are not surprised. We think there are at least half a dozen other contracts that are questionable, and now maybe the public will wake up and listen to us."

Dianne Thomas, a leader of the reform-minded Carson Neighborhood Council, said she hopes the "blight on the city" from the corruption charges will provide impetus for the reforms her group has long been seeking.

"I hope some good will come out of this," Thomas said, adding that her group was already planning an open-government workshop in January with the California First Amendment Coalition.

"We need some sunshine laws and ways to police [government] so things can be caught before they get too far out of hand," she said.

Councilman Jim Dear said he too hopes campaign finance reform and other open-government measures will grow out of the corruption allegations.

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