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San Fernando government more like a reality show?

Scandals involving San Fernando officials have residents of the town irate because attention is being diverted from serious problems, including a large budget deficit and deep cuts to services.

December 07, 2011|By Jessica Garrison and Richard Winton Los Angeles Times
  • San Fernando Mayor Mario Hernandez contends that the publisher of a local newspaper is stoking the town's controversies for his own purposes. The publisher is also a local developer.
San Fernando Mayor Mario Hernandez contends that the publisher of a local… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

San Fernando, a two-square-mile city of tree-lined streets, bungalows and mom-and-pop shops in the northeast San Fernando Valley, is a typical small town, a place where everybody knows everyone.

Perhaps too well.

Two weeks ago, Mayor Mario Hernandez shocked the community when he announced at a City Council meeting that he was having an affair with a colleague, Councilwoman Maribel de la Torre. The mayor's wife was in the audience at the time.

PHOTOS: Political scandals and gaffes of 2011

The revelation is the latest in a series of scandals at City Hall in recent months that have become a major distraction at a time when the predominantly Latino, working class town of 25,000 is grappling with a large budget deficit and major cuts in municipal services.

But instead of addressing the financial crisis, residents say, city leaders seem to be turning San Fernando's affairs "into a reality show," as one critic put it. Another resident referred to it as "a Bell with sex."

Several months before the mayor announced his extramarital relationship, a teenage police cadet filed a lawsuit claiming that she had been fired after having a months-long affair with the current police chief, including at least one tryst in his city car.

More recently, residents publicly accused a third council member of having a relationship with a city police sergeant. The city administrator said he found no evidence that the allegation was true but consulted the city attorney on whether it would be a conflict if it were true.

"I am appalled," said Rhiana Lewis, one of about 100 residents who jammed a boisterous City Council meeting Monday to castigate city officials and urge them to resign. They refused.

In a plot twist worthy of a telenovela, Hernandez is placing some of the blame for the city's woes at the door of another powerful figure in town: Sev Aszkenazy, a developer and owner of the local newspaper. Hernandez contends that Aszkenazy is using his paper, the San Fernando Sun, to stoke the controversies because he's piqued that officials won't let him have his way on development projects.

Aszkenazy denies the accusations, but his paper has reported extensively on the scandals.

"Mario, Mario, Mario, how did things ever get so bad?" a story in the current edition of the newspaper asks in urging the mayor to resign.

What that story didn't mention — but many here know — is that Aszkenazy's wife and the mayor's estranged wife are sisters.

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L'Affaire Hernandez-De La Torre exploded in the final minute of a November council meeting when Hernandez leaned into the microphone and announced that he had lost his business and filed personal and corporate bankruptcy. Then he added: "I'd like to put out there, to squash the rumors, that yes, I have been in a relationship with Councilwoman De La Torre."

During his remarks, Hernandez publicly blamed Aszkenazy, who is also his former landlord and was in the room listening. "It was a big, bad landlord that helped push me out there," he said. "It was political retaliation.... Mr. Aszkenazy, you can sit there with a smug look on your face, that is the truth."

Hernandez said conflicts with his brother-in-law heated up last spring when Hernandez opposed the design of a streetscape the developer had proposed for one of his projects.

After that, Aszkenazy stopped giving him extensions on his rent, even though other business tenants received such consideration, Hernandez said.

"He uses the paper to his advantage, to influence public perception," Hernandez said.

Still, he added, "Our city has had issues."

Hernandez's bankruptcy papers, filed in June, show that he owes more than $440,000 to a trust overseen by Aszkenazy's wife. Court papers show he is now making just $600 a month — his council stipend.

In an interview, Aszkenazy said he does not use his newspaper to settle personal scores, adding that there was no connection between the streetscape fracas and Hernandez's rental arrangements.

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Before all this, San Fernando was already dealing with another scandal.

Police Chief Marco Anthony Ruelas spent much of the year on leave amid an investigation into an alleged affair with a 19-year-old police cadet in 2009 when Ruelas was a lieutenant. His contract expires in January.

Maria Barajas accused the chief of orchestrating her firing because he feared she might reveal their relationship. Court papers include references to hundreds of texts and emails between the two.

Ruelas, in a statement, described his connection to Barajas as a "voluntary friendship" and denied wrongdoing. He noted that the former cadet's lawsuit has been dismissed twice.

The former cadet's lawsuit also names Sgt. Alvaro Castellon, the man accused of having an affair with Councilwoman Brenda Esqueda. The cadet claimed that Castellon had threatened to make her "disappear" if she spoke of the alleged affair.

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