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Produce market's owner is charged

Authorities allege the wholesale operation in downtown L.A. was infested with rats and violated safety rules.

March 13, 2007|Richard Winton | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles prosecutors filed criminal charges Monday against one of the city's largest produce markets and the biggest landowner downtown, alleging illegal construction, unsanitary conditions and rodent infestation.

The 7th Street Market, owned by prominent developer Richard Meruelo, provides fruit and vegetables to restaurants and caterers across Southern California.

Meruelo, 42, and facility manager John Hull Durham II, 64, could face up to six months in jail or $1,000 fines for each of the eight misdemeanors.

"Any violations involving the food chain we take very seriously," said Jeffrey Isaacs, chief of the city attorney's criminal branch. "There were some serious health and building and safety codes violations here."

The charges paint a grim picture of the wholesale market, where rodents were permitted to breed and live unchecked. Prosecutors also allege that there is no hot water in some of the restrooms and that the building is rife with illegal construction and wiring.

The action comes a week after county health officials asked City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo to file charges against the market owners, following a hidden-camera investigation by KNBC-TV Channel 4.

Michael Bustamante, a spokesman for the 7th Street Market, said that significant improvements were made at the market after the KNBC story was broadcast.

"We're surprised and disappointed that the city attorney's office would decide to file a complaint against the owners of the 7th Street Market despite the aggressive actions taken to significantly improve the problems identified in the NBC undercover investigation," Bustamante said.

The market, on Central Avenue between 7th and 8th streets, houses at least 75 stalls leased to individual vendors.

City prosecutors, however, say that although vendors must maintain valid county health department permits, the market operators are responsible for overall standards.

The KNBC report found that workers dumped trash near produce, stored produce next to garbage dumpsters and at times urinated near produce. The report also showed at least one rat rummaging around produce.

A January investigation by the Los Angeles County health department found several health violations, including rat burrows throughout the 7th Street complex, rat droppings in vendor markets and garbage near stacks of produce.

Health inspectors found no soap or hot water, which are required in a food-handling environment, in several market restrooms, prosecutors said.

The charges come amid growing national concerns about diseases and contamination of foods. The contamination of fruits and vegetables with hepatitis and E. Coli have drawn national attention in the last year.

Last June, city inspectors ordered building owners to get permits for construction work that had already been done, including repairs to beams and construction of stairways and alterations to electrical wiring. Meruelo's company, prosecutors allege, didn't comply with the orders within 30 days.

Market officials say they have the problems under control.

"We will continue to be aggressive and vigilant to ensure that the market's tenants adhere to the new protocols that have been put in place and continue our work with the county's health department to ensure a safe supply of food," Bustamante said.

In a March 8 letter to the city attorney, the market's parent company cited a series of improvements and the hiring of a former health inspector to work daily at the site to ensure compliance.

Meruelo and Durham are scheduled to be arraigned April 5 in Los Angeles County Superior Court.

Meruelo is the biggest owner of downtown acreage, with more than 100 properties in and around the urban core. His company's headquarters are above the market, which was built in 1917.

Beginning with his mother's dress shop at 3rd Street and Broadway, Meruelo has built an empire of properties, mostly east of Broadway.

The son of Cuban immigrants, he rose to political prominence in part because of his large political contributions. He gave $197,311 to support Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's election campaign.

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