A former mayor of Vernon and his wife were convicted Friday of voter fraud and conspiracy, capping a three-year legal saga that ended the family's long grip over the tiny industrial city in southeast Los Angeles County.
Prosecutors accused Leonis and Dominica Malburg of engaging in an elaborate sham in which they pretended to reside in Vernon while actually living in a large home in Hancock Park, said Deputy Dist. Atty. Max Huntsman.
"Many politicians . . . claim they can run for office where they don't really live," Huntsman said. "That's against the law. Our result here today says that unequivocally."
Although the charges carry a potential prison sentence, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Michael Johnson indicated that he would not give the couple any time behind bars, Huntsman said.
The convictions will, however, prevent them from holding public office, he said.
The case against the Malburgs was filed after decades of complaints by critics that the small, quirky city a few miles from downtown was operated as a fiefdom by city leaders.
Leonis Malburg, 80, served as mayor and councilman for more than half a century until he resigned earlier this year. His grandfather, John Baptiste Leonis, a charismatic Basque immigrant, founded Vernon and the family name came to grace everything from a street to a power plant.
But allegations that the city's founding family lived elsewhere persisted for decades. Half a century ago, prosecutors accused Leonis, then the mayor, of casting ballots in Vernon while living in a spacious home in Hancock Park.
He was indicted on voter fraud charges eerily similar to the ones that led to his grandson's political downfall, but the charges were eventually dropped.
In 1978, a county grand jury charged Leonis Malburg with perjury and fraudulent voting, saying he falsely claimed to live in Vernon.
"Our contention is that he never lived in Vernon at all," a prosecutor said at the time. The charges were later dropped.
In the most recent case, prosecutors filed charges in 2006 accusing Leonis and Dominica Malburg, 83, of falsely claiming they lived in an apartment atop a commercial building on Leonis Boulevard.
Prosecutors also alleged that Leonis Malburg set up a sham residence for his adult son, John, so he could vote in the city.
John Malburg told investigators that he lived with his parents on Leonis Boulevard until he moved in 2005 to an apartment on 50th Street, where he registered to vote, prosecutors alleged.
But prosecutors said all three of the Malburgs lived in Los Angeles, with the parents living in the same Hancock Park estate that the city's founder, Leonis Malburg's grandfather, once owned.
Huntsman said investigators surveilled the apartments before concluding that although Leonis Malburg might spend some time at his city apartment, none of the family lived there.
When they searched the Leonis Boulevard apartment, Huntsman said, investigators found that a bedroom supposedly used recently by John Malburg, then in his 30s, included Raggedy Ann and Andy decor. Investigators believed that many of the apartment's furnishings had been barely touched for decades, Huntsman said.
"It looked like a movie set from the 1950s," the prosecutor said.
At the 50th Street apartment, investigators discovered that the home's only mattress was still wrapped in plastic and that the unit lacked hot water and toilet paper, Huntsman said.
Huntsman said Leonis Malburg and his son insisted during the trial that they did live in the city. The elder Malburg testified that he stayed at the Leonis Boulevard apartment three or four times a week and spent time in Los Angeles because of medical problems. Defense attorneys could not be reached for comment late Friday.
During their probe, investigators also uncovered evidence that John Malburg had sexually abused children. In April, he was sentenced to eight years in prison.
The Malburgs' grip on power in Vernon endured because the city offered generous perks to residents and provided a business-friendly environment for employers. Most of the town's roughly 100 residents work for the city or are family members of city employees, dependent on Vernon officials for their income. Most also live in city-owned homes.
Critics accused Vernon's leaders of running a political machine that kept power in the hands of the city's founding family and a small group of other leaders.
Political challengers faced scrutiny from private investigators or were evicted from the city.
Huntsman hailed Friday's verdict as a victory against public corruption, but said it probably would not alter the city leaders' tight control over Vernon.
"The concept that a city ought to have residents and those residents ought to be able to determine their leaders, that's a basic democratic principle and Vernon doesn't embody that principle," Huntsman said. "That's not going to change as a result of today's verdict."