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Allegations Roil a Sedate City

One council member is accused of conflict of interest, another of long-ago molestations. The two deny wrongdoing as Commerce, unused to scandal, is abuzz.

September 02, 2004|Jean-Paul Renaud | Times Staff Writer

In the sprawling industrial region southeast of downtown Los Angeles, where working-class cities like South Gate and Lynwood have struggled with municipal corruption, the city of Commerce has long been held up as the exception.

Unlike some neighbors, this town of 13,000 has been largely free of scandal or rancor.

It has prospered thanks in large part to card club revenues, which make up 40% of the municipal budget, as well as prominent commercial developments like the Assyrian-style Citadel outlet shops off the Santa Ana Freeway.

Many of the city's services -- youth leagues, city pools and fitness centers -- are free. The population -- most of it Latino -- boasts of clean parks, plenty of city-sponsored activities and even city-owned cabins in the San Bernardino Mountains where residents can vacation. The city's website carries the slogan "Where quality service is our tradition."

But this summer, Commerce has been shaken by allegations of wrongdoing -- against two council members -- that have come to dominate civic discourse.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday September 28, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 70 words Type of Material: Correction
Commerce scandal -- A Sept. 2 article in the California section said Commerce "has long been held up as the exception" in contrast to nearby cities that are struggling with municipal corruption. While Commerce in recent years has been relatively free of such problems, the article should have made reference to an incident in the early 1980s in which several council members pleaded guilty or were convicted of fraud charges.

First, Councilwoman Nancy Ramos was accused of accepting a three-night stay at the Bellagio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas from the Commerce Casino, the city's top employer. Then, a Las Vegas man strode to the podium at a City Council meeting in August and accused Councilman Ray Cisneros of molesting him when he was a child -- charges the official strongly denies.

Both accusations, now under investigation by authorities, have divided a city not accustomed to controversy.

"At the latest City Council meetings, it's taken up all of the time," said Marki Leonard, president of the Industrial Council, the city's chamber of commerce. "The most important issues with the residents and businesses have been ignored. It's slowed things down."

The Aug. 17 council meeting, for example, went over by at least an hour because a large part of it was spent discussing the molestation allegations, according to the city administrator. The clerk's office has been swamped with requests from residents and the media for public records about elected officials.

Commerce's reputation as a well-run city has long been a point of pride among residents. For decades, Commerce and the rest of southeast Los Angeles County were the heart of the area's industrial belt. The Citadel -- with its stained glass and stone turrets -- was a tire plant. The city's original slogan was "Commerce means business."

But by the 1970s, many of the rubber and other old heavy-manufacturing plants had closed, and the communities of southeast Los Angeles County had to reinvent themselves.

For many surrounding towns, the change has caused turmoil at City Hall. Over two decades, cities such as Bell, Bell Gardens, Huntington Park and South Gate have endured scandals involving bribery, wiretapping, firebombing and even fistfights involving elected officials.

But with the card club and conversion of the old Uniroyal plant into an outlet mall, Commerce made a better transformation than some.

Only about 7% of the city's land is devoted to residential development, but residents said they liked the small-town feel of Commerce. When a runaway freight train smashed into a neighborhood last year, the city came together.

So this summer's charges and countercharges have troubled some.

"There's a lot of controversy," said Robert Cornejo, a former mayor and council member in Commerce who served from 1984 to 1997. "Some people want to believe the worst; some people want to believe the least."

It began in March. Ramos said she traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for Proposition 68, a measure on California's November ballot that could allow slot machines in some card rooms, including the one in Commerce. While she was there, Ramos said, Commerce Casino officials offered her a stay at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

"People from the casino told me to take a rest," she said. "They said, 'When you come back from D.C., we need you to get some rest.' "

She paid for the three-night stay with her city-issued credit card.

A few weeks later, city Finance Director Vilko Domic noticed the Bellagio charge on the card. When he called the luxury hotel, he was told to ignore the $1,991 charge because the Commerce Casino had paid the bill, he said.

Public officials generally may not accept gifts that exceed $340 from any one donor, according to state law.

Ramos said in an interview with The Times that she should not have used the city-issued card and that she had abstained from voting on casino matters.

Some ethics experts said her abstention might not clear her of wrongdoing.

"These laws are designed to instill public trust, so that officials are completely independent of economic interests," said Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies and former legal counsel for the California League of Cities. "It would be common sense to realize that there's a problem and that there's a conflict of interest."

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