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D.A. Requests Credit Card Records in Lynwood Probe

September 17, 2003|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office has requested the credit card statements of five Lynwood City Council members in an investigation of possible misuse of public funds, prosecutors said Tuesday.

An investigator from the D.A.'s office filed a public records request Monday for credit card statements dating back to 1998. The city records, according to a confidential memorandum by Lynwood City Atty. James Casso, are the same that were cited by The Times in a story published Monday on the salaries, travel and spending habits of Lynwood council members.

The Times reported that council members have used city credit cards for expensive dinners, luxury resort trips, and book and music store purchases, as well as from online retailers. Council members have access to two credit cards that are supposed to be used primarily for travel arrangements, not personal purchases.

Councilmen Paul Richards and Louis Byrd are the heaviest credit card users, with each running up more than $70,000 in purchases in recent years. Councilman Arturo Reyes and Mayor Fernando Pedroza also have used their credit cards for questionable expenses. Pedroza paid for a dinner show in Rio de Janiero, for example, and Reyes bought several airline tickets for his wife. The councilmen have denied any wrongdoing.

At a City Council meeting Tuesday night, Pedroza, Byrd and Richards defended their travel expenses, saying that they were working tirelessly to bring business and other opportunities to Lynwood.

Pedroza said that he went to Rio for a study tour of shopping centers, and that he reimbursed the city for his airline flight and dinner show. The city paid his hotel bill, he said.

"We're all being abused by this type of journalism," he told residents at the meeting. "Don't believe everything you hear and everything you read."

Richard said that he uses his city credit cards as an "administrative convenience" and that all his expenses are appropriate.

"The credit card record is viewable and documented for all to see," he said.

Councilman Ramon Rodriguez, the member with by far the fewest credit card purchases, said he welcomed the investigation. "Something is wrong, especially when you have veterans like Richards and Byrd

David Demerjian, head of the district attorney's Public Integrity Division, said his office opened an investigation into Lynwood officials in April, after a resident filed a complaint. Investigators set up interviews this week with Lynwood officials, he said. Demerjian declined to describe details of the probe.

Reyes said he would cooperate with authorities. He said he reimbursed the city for all personal purchases, including jewelry and the airline tickets.

"I have no problem with [the investigation]. They should have done it years ago," said Reyes, who accused Richards and Byrd of abusing their credit-card privileges. "Hopefully [investigators] will get to the bottom of it."

According to city records, council members have made few reimbursements for credit card expenses. Prosecutors said repayments do not necessarily eliminate criminal liability. Municipal credit cards are not to be used to obtain what amount to unsecured loans at taxpayer expense, prosecutors said.

A similar probe resulted in indictments of several former Compton officials, including former Mayor Omar Bradley and three council members. Their trial is scheduled to begin later this year. The officials have pleaded not guilty to charges of misusing public funds.

The district attorney's office stepped up its investigations of credit card abuse complaints in response to a legal opinion issued last year by the California attorney general's office. The opinion said officials cannot use government credit cards to pay the dinner tabs of people with whom they meet to discuss government business.

After the legal opinion was issued, Lynwood City Council members received a second credit card, this one issued by the city's redevelopment agency. Faustin Gonzalez, a former city manager, said then-City Atty. Michael Montgomery determined that the legal opinion did not apply to council members in their roles as members of other city agencies.

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