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An Insider's Story Carries a Lesson on Perils of Power

October 26, 2003|Frank del Olmo

Thirty years ago a bright young man came out of East Los Angeles College, where he was student body president, and went to work in Los Angeles City Hall for the newly elected Mayor Tom Bradley. Like many liberal Mexican Americans who gravitated to public service in the early Bradley years, Art M. Gastelum was motivated by idealism as much as personal ambition.

As the years passed, most of the other Latinos who joined the Bradley administration in its early years -- deputy mayors Manuel Aragon and Grace Montanez Davis and city commissioners Joe Sanchez and Frank Munoz -- returned to the private sector. But Gastelum remained. And at the end, when the remnants of early idealism lay forgotten amid the ashes of the 1992 riots, Gastelum was the aging mayor's chief liaison to the Latino community. He was also dogged by persistent rumors that he was using his influential position less to take care of city business than to enhance his own financial well-being.

Despite the rumors, journalists around town were never able to prove that Gastelum was guilty of any kind of political corruption. Still, it was no real surprise last week to read a Times investigative article focused on Gastelum. He is 54 now and a well-heeled lobbyist with a large home in San Marino. And he's been under investigation for possible political corruption by, among other law enforcement agencies, the FBI and the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

None of the investigations has resulted in any specific charges against Gastelum, who told Times reporters that he was innocent of any wrongdoing and had become so successful by "having good relations and being honest with people." Perhaps. But it is hard to explain away the fact that Gastelum was at the center of one of the most egregious instances of public-sector incompetence this city has seen in the last decade. I refer to the political and financial debacle that resulted from the initial efforts to build a badly needed new high school near downtown to relieve overcrowding at Belmont High.

Gastelum was one of the prime movers behind the original plans to build the Belmont Learning Complex, a massive public works project that was to include a retail development on prime real estate just west of the Harbor Freeway. His business helped assemble the team of architects and construction companies for the original project, a monstrosity that should never have been approved. It got the go-ahead thanks to a combination of bungling at the Los Angeles Unified School District and the well-oiled political connections of its promoters, not least among them Art Gastelum.

That original project died a well-deserved death in 1999, when a panicky school board voted to abandon the almost-completed school because of environmental fears -- potentially explosive gases in abandoned oil wells underneath the property. The project was revived earlier this year when a newly elected board majority, under pressure from immigrant parents who desperately want a school for their children, agreed to look at new evidence that a smaller school on the site could meet state safety requirements.

That was an important victory for the community around Belmont. But it is hard to celebrate very enthusiastically when one realizes that well-connected pols like Gastelum got rich, at least in part, at the expense of a desperately needed school.

So even if nothing ever comes of all the probes into Gastelum's business affairs -- a spokesman for the district attorney told The Times that "a fresh look" into the D.A.'s files on Gastelum had been ordered -- his rise and fall should remain a sad object lesson on the perils of political power.

Somewhere among all the fresh new faces that have emerged the last few years is surely the politico who will someday be L.A.'s first Latino mayor in more than a century, and who could someday be remembered as fondly as Tom Bradley. It could be City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, City Council President Alex Padilla or another of his council colleagues. Or it might be school board President Jose Huizar, who did more than anyone else to revive the Belmont project.

Let them never forget how all the hope Angelenos invested in Tom Bradley faded away when he, and staffers like Gastelum, remained in power far, far too long.

Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

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