A disbarred attorney who worked in South Gate despite having embezzlement and forgery convictions was indicted by the Los Angeles County Grand Jury on Friday for allegedly stealing money from four people.
Cristeta Paguirigan, according to prosecutors and the four-count indictment, committed grand theft by agreeing to perform legal work for clients after her disbarment in 1998.
Paguirigan's hiring in 2001 in South Gate as a $200-per-hour litigation specialist stirred controversy in the working-class city, and the resulting publicity, prosecutors said, led the latest victims to come forward.
Prosecutors said they suspect Paguirigan regularly misrepresented herself as an attorney after being disbarred for forging a client's signature in 1997. She also has three embezzlement convictions and is on probation.
"It was theft by false pretenses," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Max Huntsman, a prosecutor in the district attorney's justice integrity unit. "They handed money to her because she lied to them. She told them she was an attorney when she wasn't."
Paguirigan, who was arrested at her South Pasadena home Friday morning, pleaded not guilty and is being held on $250,000 bail. Superior Court Judge Michael A. Tynan denied a bail reduction after prosecutors accused Paguirigan of witness tampering for allegedly contacting one of the victims during the investigation.
Paguirigan's attorney, Trent Copeland, said her arrest was part of prosecutors' "scorched earth" investigation into alleged corruption in South Gate. Paguirigan was a key figure in the government of former Treasurer Albert Robles and his City Council allies, who were ousted from office in a January recall election. Robles, former Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba and Vice Mayor Raul Moriel were accused of corruption for, among other things, steering contracts to cronies and people under investigation.
"In my view this is the latest installment in the D.A.'s campaign of harassment and intimidation against anyone who worked for Albert Robles," Copeland said.
Prosecutors said none of the charges relate to Paguirigan's work in South Gate. If found guilty, Paguirigan faces a potential six-year prison term.
Paguirigan, prosecutors allege, represented herself as a labor law specialist when she accepted an unspecified amount of money from four clients in 1998 and 1999. She made some victims sign retainer agreements and charged as much as $1,000 for writing a letter.
"She would say she could help ... and then in most of the cases she didn't do much for the people," Huntsman said.
The alleged victims, Huntsman said, became aware that Paguirigan was a disbarred attorney through media coverage of South Gate.
Paguirigan, who changed her name to Klaparda before coming to South Gate, was paid hundreds of thousands of dollars as a litigation consultant even after political leaders learned of her past convictions. She worked closely with Robles and was a key behind-the-scenes player who prepared agendas and worked on investigations of city employees.
The city's new leaders were optimistic that Paguirigan's arrest would make her more likely to cooperate in federal and local investigations. Authorities are probing suspected misuse of public funds and electoral fraud.
Three other Robles allies have been convicted or pleaded no contest to electoral fraud charges. On Monday, Robles is scheduled to stand trial on illegal weapons charges.
Paguirigan's next court appearance is set for Thursday.