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Taxpayers to Pay for Defense of Ousted Official

Albert Robles, facing conspiracy charges, cannot afford legal counsel, judge finds.

August 06, 2003|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

Being South Gate's most powerful politician offered Albert Robles a comfortable life. The former treasurer and deputy city manager earned nearly $11,500 monthly, drove a new city-provided Buick Le Sabre and bought a two-story townhouse with help from a city homeownership program.

But Robles is now pleading poverty.

After being indicted last month on conspiracy charges, Robles said he could not afford legal counsel, so a judge provided a court-appointed attorney. County taxpayers are now paying for the criminal defense of Robles, who has earned about $130,000 in the past year.

When Robles requested a public defender shortly after he was indicted two weeks ago, he was treated much like the 250,000 others who apply each year, said John Vacca, the acting assistant public defender in charge of operations.

Aware of Robles' white-collar background, Vacca said, officials took extra steps to verify the financial information provided. Robles met the requirements, he said.

Critics said they wonder how Robles can stand alongside penniless immigrants, homeless people and others deemed legally indigent. They said Robles, who once charged taxpayers for acting and flying lessons, continues to sponge off the public, even after being tossed from office earlier this year in a recall election, along with the mayor and two council members.

"He knows no other way," said South Gate's new mayor, Hector De La Torre, a longtime Robles critic who said Robles once complained after his free golfing privileges at a municipal course were revoked. "It's totally in line with his history. He will nickel and dime the system wherever he can."

Robles declined to comment.

The flap over Robles' defense bill is just the latest in a string of controversies that have marked Robles' roller-coaster political career. During his two years in power, he and his then-council allies -- Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba, Vice Mayor Raul Moriel and Councilwoman Maria Benavides -- were accused of corruption and cronyism. After the recall, they left the city nearly bankrupt and awash in federal and local corruption investigations.

Two weeks ago, the Los Angeles County Grand Jury accused Robles in an eight-count indictment of conspiring to prepare and mail false campaign fliers in advance of the voter recall election against him. If found guilty, he could be sentenced to seven years in prison.

Last week, a judge granted a request from the public defender's office that counsel be appointed for Robles. According to the office's guidelines, counsel is provided to those "financially unable to obtain adequate representation without substantial hardship to himself or family."

No hard and fast formulas determine eligibility. The "flexible" standard, as described in the guidelines, considers such factors as employment, income, assets and the number of dependents. The guidelines state that an accused person should "not be compelled to devastate the economic well-being of himself or family in order to raise money necessary to retain counsel."

Vacca said that Robles does not fit the typical profile of someone who requests the services of a public defender. Vacca said his office had run a credit check and searched Robles' property records -- precautionary steps taken in cases when the office suspects someone can afford a private attorney.

On the basis of their review, which Vacca conceded was limited because of a lack of resources, the office approved Robles' defense. If it turns out that Robles has the means to pay for an attorney, Vacca said, a judge could order him to reimburse the county.

"From what we are able to determine, Mr. Robles qualifies," Vacca said. "If we are mistaken and there are other assets and avenues for him to come up with income ... certainly the court can take action to see that taxpayers' money is returned."

Until he was fired in June, Robles was earning $10,800 per month as South Gate's deputy city manager. He also earned $600 monthly as treasurer until being ousted from office in January.

Robles currently makes a base salary of $300 monthly as a director at the Central Basin Municipal Water District. Directors also receive $200 per meeting and car allowances of $350 per month. Meetings are held as often as 10 times per month.

According to Robles' 2002 statement of economic interests, he owns stock in four companies -- including America Online and Amgen, a biotechnology firm -- worth anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000. Robles lives in a townhouse that he purchased in 1995 through the city's first-time home buyer assistance program.

This is not the first time that taxpayers have paid a criminal defense bill for Robles. Over the past two years, South Gate taxpayers have paid about $1 million to Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton, the law firm that represented Robles in a grand jury investigation and against charges that he had threatened to kill rival politicians. That case was eventually dismissed.

Robles' taxpayer-funded defense was authorized by his former council allies over residents' protests. The city has since filed a lawsuit demanding that the law firm return the money.

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