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A low-key lawyer makes millions on Vernon's dime

Attorney Eric T. Fresch wields vast power but is little known in the industrial city of Vernon.

December 17, 2010|By Kim Christensen, Hector Becerra and Sam Allen, Los Angeles Times

Eric T. Fresch is Vernon's million-dollar man, a lawyer and former administrator who is not only one of the nation's highest paid public officials ever, but one of the least known.

No photos of Fresch hang in City Hall, and his image cannot be found on the Internet. Until recently, his name rarely appeared in print. He's not a familiar figure even in Vernon, where he has raked in $7.5 million in salary and fees since 2005, routinely flying down to the small southeast Los Angeles County city from his Marin County home on Mondays and back on Wednesdays — often first-class.

Some in Vernon liken the 56-year-old attorney to the Wizard of Oz, deftly working the levers from behind the scenes of a city that covets governmental privacy as much as he does his own.

"Eric Fresch is considered by many Vernon business owners to be a man of mystery," said Steve Freed, president of the Vernon Property Assn., a business-advocacy group. "Very few business owners have ever met the man, and while many people in the business community think Mr. Fresch is the man running the city, no one in city government will confirm he is the one pulling the strings."

With the city increasingly under political fire — state Assembly Speaker John Pérez (D-Los Angeles) has proposed legislation to dissolve it — Fresch's pay has become a rallying point for those who've long said Vernon is run for the benefit of its leaders. The battle over Vernon's survival as an independent city increasingly has pushed this inside figure into the public eye. State Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown, who is investigating city officials' salaries and spending, alluded to Fresch's as "excessive" and "egregious."

By his own account, Fresch has been a tireless public servant: In 2008, he averaged 82 hours a week and worked 363 days, including every Saturday, every Sunday and every holiday except Christmas, according to city billing records. He made $1.65 million that year, as city administrator and assistant city attorney and is now a $525-an-hour legal consultant, on track through July to his fifth straight $1-million year.

One former employee remembers he wore "the nicest suits in City Hall," while others speak of his "entourage" of consultants and lawyers, dogging his steps. In Vernon, he has an armed driver, and while traveling he's spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars at five-star hotels, including the Ritz-Carlton in New York.

Fresch did not respond to repeated interview requests for this article. City officials refused to answer written questions about his work, his relationship with a private investigator who was paid millions through city contracts, or his brother's qualifications to be a $332,800-a-year energy consultant.

Their silence is not unusual for Vernon, which has fewer than 100 residents, a power plant that generates an abundance of electricity and revenue, and a history of acting more like a big business than a small town.

In a brief phone interview in August, Fresch seemed surprised even to be asked about his earnings. After all, he said in his only public comments to date, lawyers of his caliber in private practice bill up to $1,000 an hour.

"I would be confused if someone would be outraged at what I made," he said, then called back within minutes to amend what he'd said.

"If people think that I am a city guy making that kind of money, they would have every right to be outraged," he said. "I'm not trying to say that municipal compensation should be at the level that I'm doing. I'm saying that if you bring a guy like me in, and do transactions for several hundred million dollars, this would not be out-of-line compensation."

The Fresch family's ties to Southeast Los Angeles County stretch back more than two decades, sometimes marked by business disputes and controversy.

Late patriarch Eugene Fresch made headlines in 1988 when Huntington Park gave a trash-hauling contract to his new company, H.P. Disposal, even though it had no headquarters, no trucks and no experience. Eric and his older brother Curtis joined him in the business, according to records and interviews.

The elder Fresch, a successful businessman in Ohio, had moved his family to Las Vegas in the early 1970s and partnered in a company that ran the Hacienda hotel and casino.

By the time he won the garbage contract, his sons had opened a poker club in Huntington Park that was pumping $500,000 a year into the city treasury. In their running of the Huntington Park Club Corp., the contrast between the siblings was readily apparent, said people who knew them.

"Curtis was big on the $600 bottle of wine stuff," said Jack Leonard, 77, a former general manager of H.P. Disposal who later sued and settled with the Fresches over his share of the business. "He was a big-shot type. He always wanted to be the big spender. Eric was just the opposite. You never knew when he was around."

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