The Los Angeles County district attorney's office missed a rare opportunity to plumb back-room patronage and deal-making when it shut down a corruption investigation earlier this year without fully exploring allegations that an influential lobbyist had engaged in bribery and other wrongdoing.
The lobbyist, Art M. Gastelum, is a prominent political fund-raiser and owns a company that has managed numerous government construction projects in Southern California. The allegations about him surfaced during the district attorney's two-year investigation into the Belmont Learning Complex, a failed school construction project in which Gastelum was a partner. Gastelum said in an interview that the allegations were unfounded
The D.A.'s 220-page public report on the Belmont probe contained no hint of the material gathered about Gastelum. The report, released in March, said prosecutors had found no evidence of wrongdoing related to the high school, a half-finished eyesore that has become a symbol of governmental waste and incompetence.
The Times reviewed thousands of pages of confidential files from the Belmont investigation, conducted dozens of interviews and found that senior prosecutors had failed to pursue three key leads about Gastelum and his associates:
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 01, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 79 words Type of Material: Correction
Robbery case -- An article in Section A on Oct. 23 about shortcomings in a corruption investigation by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office inaccurately described an unrelated robbery case. The article reported that a deputy district attorney in the corruption probe was reassigned to prosecute a vagrant on 20 counts of robbery. In fact, the case involved two defendants charged with 33 counts of armed robbery, attempted robbery, assault with a gun and false imprisonment by violence.
* A veteran Los Angeles Police Department detective told prosecutors of an informant who claimed to have delivered bribes from Gastelum to public officials. The district attorney's office did nothing with the information for months, and still has not contacted the purported bagman.
* A lobbyist representing an operator of airport newsstands and gift stores told the D.A.'s office that Gastelum and a city airport commissioner had pressured him to steer LAX business to Gastelum's daughter and son-in-law. The lobbyist identified a witness who, he said, could corroborate his account. Prosecutors did not contact the man.
* A deputy district attorney uncovered information suggesting that Gastelum had been a hidden source of campaign contributions to school board members at a time when he needed their votes to earn a $1.2-million fee on the Belmont project. The prosecutor's superiors prohibited him from looking into the matter.
Gastelum said that he had never laundered campaign contributions or paid bribes and that he had obeyed the law in all his business dealings.
"I've worked very hard to get to where I'm at. No one gave it to me," he said, attributing his success to "having good relations and being honest with people."
Asked for comment, Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley acknowledged that his subordinates might have mishandled the leads on Gastelum. "I think your scenario indicates maybe a ball was dropped, but I would never suggest, I would have no sense, it was done for the wrong reasons," he said.
A spokesman later said that Cooley had ordered a reinvestigation -- "a fresh look at the whole Gastelum matter."
The earlier indifference by top officials in the D.A.'s office was noteworthy because prosecutors had independent reason to be suspicious of Gastelum, records show.
The FBI notified them during the Belmont probe that it had recorded Gastelum discussing how to arrange a $1-million payment to an official of a water board in San Diego County. The project in question, unrelated to Belmont, never materialized, and no charges were filed.
The office's inaction was all the more striking because the deputy district attorney assigned to focus on Gastelum had argued insistently for a more thorough look at the lobbyist's activities.
In internal memos, prosecutor Matt Dalton pleaded for permission to pursue the tips about Gastelum, particularly the one about alleged payoffs to public officials.
"This could be an opportunity to hook Gastelum," Dalton wrote on Nov. 15, 2002. "We should attempt this before any report on Belmont is released by our office."
The request was ignored, and Dalton resigned from the D.A.'s office three months later.
Gastelum, 54, is a self-made man who wears finely tailored clothes and owns a 6,700-square-foot home in San Marino, where he holds political fund-raisers.
Born to Mexican immigrants, he worked his way through East Los Angeles College selling used cars.
As student body president, he got to know Mike Antonovich, then on the college's Board of Trustees and now a Los Angeles County supervisor.
Gastelum made another important connection in those years -- with mayoral candidate Tom Bradley.
Gastelum worked on Bradley's 1973 campaign and followed the new mayor to City Hall, serving as his Latino liaison and eventually as his director of economic development.
In 1990, Gastelum went into business for himself. A registered lobbyist, he also owns the construction management company Gateway Science and Engineering of Pasadena. He had no construction background but hired people who did. Gateway has secured millions of dollars in minority-business contracts from cities, school districts and community colleges.