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Utility bills are key in case against L.A. Councilman Alarcon

Alarcon and his wife have pleaded not guilty to felony charges of making false statements about where they live. A DWP employee told jurors water and electricity use at his Panorama City house was very low.

October 05, 2010|By David Zahniser, Los Angeles Times

The perjury and voter fraud case against Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon rests in part on the modest amount of water and electricity used at a Panorama City house that he claims as his residence, according to a grand jury transcript obtained Monday.


FOR THE RECORD:
Richard Alarcon's residence: In the Oct. 5 LATE- xtra section, a map that appeared with an article about Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon and his wife, who face felony charges of making false statements about where they live, labeled a portion of the 5 Freeway as the 170. The erroneous map also appeared Aug. 6 with an article on the same subject. —

Alarcon and his wife pleaded not guilty to 24 felony charges that accuse them of making false statements about where they live on voting forms, drivers' licenses and other documents.

The 1950 tract house in Panorama City allowed Alarcon to meet a requirement that council members live in the district they seek to represent. But a Department of Water and Power employee told jurors that the house used so little water between September 2007 and September 2009 that the total averaged out to 8.2 gallons per day.

That would be enough for either two toilet flushes in a 24-hour period or a single shower of a minute and a half, said Wayne Wohler, an assistant supervisor in the DWP's revenue security unit.

"Water use doesn't lie," Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Jennifer Lentz Snyder told the panel, whose proceedings only become public if an indictment is issued. "If they lived there, they didn't flush the toilet, they didn't use the sink, they didn't wash their hands and they didn't take showers."

The house at the center of the case is on Nordhoff Street and is owned by the woman Alarcon married in 2007 — Flora Montes de Oca Alarcon. At the time when water use was low at that address, it was higher at a second, considerably larger residence also owned by the councilman's wife in Sun Valley, just outside Alarcon's 7th Council District.

That home, on Sheldon Street, used an average of 845 gallons per day during roughly the same period, Wohler testified. After search warrants were served at both addresses, water use rose sharply at the Panorama City house and plummeted at the Sun Valley house, he said.

Prosecutors also obtained testimony that the Panorama City house used an average of 1.8 kilowatts of electricity per day between September 2007 and September 2009. That would not have been enough to power a single 100-watt light bulb over a 24-hour period, Wohler told the grand jury.

Fred Woocher, one of Alarcon's attorneys, said the information on the utility bills does nothing to show that the councilman ran afoul of the law.

Alarcon and his wife spent a significant portion of a two-year period away from the Panorama City residence while it was undergoing major repairs, Woocher said. They always planned to keep it as their residence and return full time once the work was done — and Alarcon's wife had given birth to a baby girl, he added.

"When the baby was coming, they began making extensive renovations and repairs to the place precisely so it could be a permanent residence suitable for their entire family, and that ended up taking much longer than [Alarcon] anticipated," said Woocher, who called the investigation a "stupid waste of time and money."

Alarcon spent five years on the council before leaving to serve two terms in the Legislature. He returned to City Hall after winning election in March 2007 and tried without success soon afterward to convince Councilwoman Wendy Greuel to agree to redraw the boundaries of her neighboring district so his wife's five-bedroom home in Sun Valley would be part of his district.

By April 2009, the district attorney's Public Integrity Division had launched a surveillance operation of the two houses. One investigator, David Babcock, testified that he had watched the Panorama City house on 45 occasions.

Babcock also watched the Sun Valley house, taking numerous photos of Alarcon's Toyota Highlander at the address and occasionally capturing images of the councilman himself. Babcock testified that Alarcon and his family were at the Sun Valley house at 7 a.m. Jan. 12, the day prosecutors served a search warrant at the location.

Throughout the grand jury proceedings, some of Alarcon's employees and extended family testified that he and his wife lived in the Panorama City house, as required by law. Nancy Ann Hodges, the councilman's executive assistant, said she had been to that house at least 10 times to deliver documents or attend social functions.

Saeed Ali, the councilman's chief of staff, said he directly asked Alarcon if he lived at the Panorama City house and was told that he did. But a couple who lived on the other side of Nordhoff Street — and had a direct view of the Alarcons' house from their kitchen — testified that they rarely saw the couple until after October 2009, when a transient broke into the house and changed all the locks.

"You very rarely saw any people," said Stephen Folden, block captain for the local chapter of Neighborhood Watch. "You didn't see any cars. You never saw the trash cans put out on trash day."

In October 2009, the same month as the break-in, Alarcon's office received a request for the water bills on Nordhoff Street from KNBC-TV reporter Joel Grover, who was working on a story about the water consumption of various council members, according to the grand jury testimony.

Alarcon spokeswoman Becca Doten initially sent a written response saying the records could not be released because the councilman rented the house and its owner is a private citizen. Ali, the councilman's chief of staff, told the grand jury that he was bothered by that response, since the owner — Montes de Oca Alarcon — was the councilman's wife.

"I thought when somebody was married to somebody, the question of paying rent was a real stretch," he said.

david.zahniser@latimes.com

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