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Corruption probe focuses on Maywood

Federal, state and local authorities are looking into claims that a tow firm owner who has city contracts lavished trips and meals on officials.

June 18, 2007|Scott Glover and Matt Lait | Times Staff Writers

The owner of a tow truck company that landed a lucrative contract with the city of Maywood has spent thousands of dollars entertaining police and public officials, including paying for meals, tickets to sporting events and trips to Las Vegas, records and interviews show.

Two members of the City Council have acknowledged failing to report the gifts as required by state law.

Known in Maywood by the moniker "Bravo" or sometimes "Tony Bravo," the owner's real name is Tooradj Khosroabadi. Since 1998, he has made millions towing cars, largely through an aggressive campaign by the city to rid its streets of drunk or unlicensed drivers by impounding their vehicles.

The storage charges were sometimes so high that drivers -- many of them illegal immigrants -- forfeited their cars rather than pay. Some of the cars were purchased by police officers.

Allegations that Khosroabadi paid kickbacks to police officials and rank-and-file officers who targeted motorists are part of a broader investigation now facing the tiny city in southeast Los Angeles County.

The FBI, the state attorney general and the Los Angeles County district attorney in recent months have requested copies of the city's towing records and have questioned witnesses about complaints of corruption.

Authorities are also looking into unrelated allegations of police brutality.

The Times has confirmed through receipts and interviews that Khosroabadi entertained officials at the same time he was renegotiating his contract to increase his storage fees. Under the agreement, signed in 2004, Khosroabadi was given exclusive towing rights until 2015.

Khosroabadi declined to be interviewed for this article. A relative with detailed knowledge of his business dealings, who spoke on the condition that she not be identified because she did not want to be associated with any controversy, described him as a kind and generous man who worked hard to become successful in a highly competitive business.

The woman said Khosroabadi would never knowingly break the law by attempting to bribe or otherwise unduly influence a public official.

"He is one of the most honest people I know," she said.

According to interviews and court documents, top police officials made an effort to help Khosroabadi's business succeed.

Maywood Police Officer Pablo Cunningham, who has accused the department of retaliating against him for reporting an array of alleged misconduct, has said in court papers that Police Chief Bruce Leflar once called a meeting at which he pressured officers on behalf of Khosroabadi, telling them he "needs more impounds."

Leflar, who abruptly stopped showing up for work late last year, declined to comment.

It was not just the chief who was allegedly applying pressure on officers, according to Cunningham's lawsuit. Cunningham said he was shown an e-mail from a lieutenant to two sergeants discussing the lack of traffic enforcement by some officers. The lieutenant encouraged the sergeants to use whatever means necessary, the e-mail said, "to get them to see the light and get into the game."

According to Colleen Flynn, a lawyer involved in a separate class-action suit against the city, Cunningham told her that officers initiating the most number of impounds were rewarded by being allowed to work four 10-hour days so they would have three days off.

Cunningham said officers targeted motorists whom they believed were illegal immigrants; their alleged offenses were derisively referred to as "driving while wet," according to Flynn.

Cunningham declined to be interviewed by The Times. He is currently suspended, pending an investigation into alleged misconduct on his part that department officials would not disclose. But his attorney, Bradley C. Gage, confirmed the details of Cunningham's remarks to Flynn.

Richard Lyons, who was appointed interim police chief earlier this year, said he would not tolerate even the perception of a conflict of interest between his officers and the towing company.

At the height of the towing campaign, Khosroabadi's company -- Maywood Club Tow -- was hauling off more than 300 vehicles a month, records show, many of them older models driven by immigrants without driver's licenses. The vehicles were impounded for up to thirty days, and the owners were charged for storage. The rates -- $20 a day for small vehicles and $28 a day for larger ones -- resulted in bills that would often exceed the value of the vehicles.

The city of Maywood also received a cut for each vehicle that was towed, generating hundreds of thousands of dollars for city coffers.

Many motorists had their vehicles seized at random traffic checkpoints, at which Khosroabadi would station catering trucks and let officers help themselves to free food and drinks, officials confirmed.

The checkpoints were often set up at rush hour on Atlantic Boulevard and Slauson Avenue, the city's main thoroughfares, resulting in traffic jams that backed up into neighboring cities.

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