Prosecutors have launched an investigation of a West Covina city councilman who bought a cut-rate SUV, then voted in favor of a financial arrangement that benefited the dealer who sold it to him.
The car in question was one of several damaged in August 2003 when environmental radicals set fire to some SUVs and painted slogans such as "polluter" on others in the San Gabriel Valley.
Councilman Roger Hernandez put up less than $6,000 in cash, plus the trade-in of his old car, to buy one of the damaged SUVs, a charcoal gray 2004 Chevy Tahoe LS that could have sold for $35,000 undamaged.
District attorney investigators served a search warrant last week at West Covina City Hall, the auto dealership and Hernandez's home.
"I opened the [garage] door, and here were a bunch of men looking through my garage," said Hernandez, 30, who denies any wrongdoing.
Investigators, he said, showed him a copy of the search warrant affidavit, which stated they were "looking for a partnership with the dealership that was improper."
Prosecutors declined to comment on the case. But sources close to the investigation said officials were trying to determine whether Hernandez acted improperly by accepting the SUV at a discounted price while continuing to participate in city business involving the dealership.
The dealership, Clippinger Chevrolet, was one of several hit by vandals during a night of attacks on SUVs across the San Gabriel Valley that was later linked to the radical environmental group Earth Liberation Front.
Shortly after the attack, Hernandez was among a group of city leaders who toured Clippinger Chevrolet to assess the damage.
Hernandez said he talked with Ziad Alhassen, president of Clippinger's parent company, West Covina Motors, about the fate of the scorched cars. Some were "100% destroyed," Hernandez said, but others were only partially burned.
"I asked him what they were going to do with these partially burned vehicles," Hernandez said. "He said that after being processed for insurance, they would be refurbished and sold at discount."
Hernandez said he told Alhassen that he was interested in purchasing one of the damaged vehicles.
Shortly afterward, Hernandez picked out a charcoal gray 2004 Chevy Tahoe LS.
"It had a stench. The vehicle always had a stench," the councilman said.
The most obvious damage was to paint on the upper left side of the roof that had a sandpaper texture from fire damage, he said.
Hernandez said he was quoted a price of about $23,000. He traded in his 1997 Toyota Land Cruiser for $17,000, he said. At the time, he also qualified for an unspecified "manufacturer's rebate."
A year later, Hernandez voted with the council majority on a sales tax deal under which the city would give back up to $3.5 million for Clippinger to improve its dealership. Under the agreement, the dealership and the city would share in the profits after a certain sales threshold was met.
About eight months ago, Hernandez said he traded in the Tahoe to a dealership in West Covina so he could buy a GMC Yukon. He said he got about the same amount that he paid to Clippinger Chevrolet -- $23,000 -- in that trade-in.
"I wanted a better car, and this one has XM [satellite] radio and [electronic location device] OnStar, and four wheel drive," Hernandez said. "The Tahoe lacked a little power, and I wanted a little more power."
Hernandez, who is studying for his master's degree in public administration from the University of La Verne and manages properties belonging to his parents, is not up for reelection until November 2007. But he said he believed the investigation indicated he was being set up by political enemies.
"I 100% believe this is politically motivated," he said. "It's part of a whisper campaign by people whose projects I voted against, people who have reasons to be upset with me."
Hernandez said there was no connection between his purchase of the Tahoe and the Clippinger vote, adding that he was confident he would be vindicated. Alhassen could not be reached for comment.
Bob Stern, a political watchdog with the Los Angeles-based Center for Governmental Studies, said the case might boil down to whether Hernandez received preferential treatment from the dealership.
"The question here is what was the vehicle worth at the time he got it and did the official get a deal better than anyone else," he said.
Councilman Steve Herfert, who voted against the $3.5 million potential sales tax payback to Alhassen in March, said he still believed the pact was a bad deal for the city.
He said the deal forgave debt and then gave up to $350,000 of sales tax revenue back to Alhassen annually if he brought in more than $1.1 million in sales tax revenue for the city.
"It was a gift of public funds," Herfert said.