District attorney's office investigators on Tuesday searched Lynwood City Hall and the properties of the mayor and three current and former City Council members as part of a yearlong investigation of alleged misuse of city-issued credit cards.
About 20 investigators arrived at City Hall when it opened at 7 a.m., as others began searching the residences of Mayor Louis Byrd, Councilman Fernando Pedroza and former council members Arturo Reyes and Paul Richards.
City Hall was shut down for much of the day, with residents told in Spanish and English to return later. "If my bill comes overdue, it's not my fault," said Sotera Villanueva, holding a $41.19 water bill, outside City Hall.
Authorities suspect the officials used public funds for travel to fancy resorts, online purchases, expensive meals and other personal expenses. The officials have defended their use of city-issued credit cards, saying that many of the expenses were reimbursed or related to city business.
The raid added to the swirl of investigations that target most of the City Council in this working-class city in southeast Los Angeles County. The FBI, in a separate case, is probing Richards, the former councilman. His house was searched by federal agents in December, and again Tuesday by local investigators.
The investigation started after a citizen complained of possible credit-card abuse to the district attorney's public integrity unit. A Times review of credit-card statements showed numerous questionable expend- itures, among them:
Byrd once used taxpayer funds to fly a friend to Hawaii, Pedroza paid for a dinner show in Rio de Janeiro and Reyes flew his wife to Rio and purchased jewelry.
Authorities would not disclose what was seized during the search, but sources said that investigators were searching for credit-card statements. Authorities declined to say whether arrests were imminent.
"We're still just gathering information," said David Demerjian, the head deputy in charge of the public integrity division.
Also under investigation is Councilman Ramon Rodriguez. He is suspected of violating conflict of interest laws by approving the purchase of goods from his hardware store by city workers. His store was also searched on Tuesday.
Rodriguez denies any wrongdoing. He said that city workers had purchased supplies at his hardware store for 13 years before he became a council member and that he never solicited any business from the city once elected to office.
In recent months, the City Council has attempted to repair the city's image. Members have cut back somewhat on compensation that made them among the highest paid part-time politicians in the state. They have also canceled their credit cards.
On Monday night, they voted to cancel a controversial resolution that gave the father-in-law of Councilman Pedroza the exclusive right to tow abandoned vehicles off local streets.
Councilwoman Maria Santillan said she hoped the investigations would end the city's political chaos. She and Councilwoman Leticia Vasquez are the only council members not being investigated.
"They don't shut down City Hall unless they know what they're looking for," Santillan said. "I'm happy that this is finally coming to an end."