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Former Vernon official pleads guilty to illegally using public money

As city administrator, Bruce Malkenhorst was at one time the highest-paid official in California. His plea will keep him out of jail. The Vernon City Council approves a slate of reforms.

May 27, 2011|By Hector Becerra and Sam Allen, Los Angeles Times
  • The state Assembly voted overwhelmingly last month in favor of dissolving Vernon, which has been dogged for decades by allegations that it is a fiefdom run by a small group of people.
The state Assembly voted overwhelmingly last month in favor of dissolving… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

A longtime city administrator of Vernon pleaded guilty to illegally using public money to pay for golf outings, massages and meals, ending one of several public corruption cases that had dogged the city as it fights an unprecedented state effort to disincorporate the town.

The plea Thursday involved Bruce Malkenhorst, who led Vernon for decades and was at one time California's highest-paid government official. He also holds the distinction of being the state's highest-paid public pensioner, receiving just over $500,000 a year.

Los Angeles County prosecutors accused Malkenhorst, 76, of illegally reimbursing himself for expenses — including paying off his personal Visa credit card — and getting the city to pay for his political donations. For five years he denied the charges, and the case remained in legal limbo.

Malkenhorst could have faced jail time if he had been convicted. But as part of his plea, he got three years of probation, as much as $35,000 in fines and penalties, and he must pay Vernon back $60,000 in restitution. According to CalPERS, Malkenhorst will still receive his pension because the law states that only the pensions of elected officials convicted of public corruption can have their pension be reduced or revoked.

His guilty plea came the same day the Vernon City Council approved a reform plan aimed at derailing state legislation that would disband City Hall and turn Vernon over to the county. The plan calls for pay cuts and term limits for council members and salary caps for other officials.

But the council members decided to enact the pay cuts at the end of their terms. They will continue to take their current pay — about $70,000 a year for part-time work — through terms that last up to five years. At that point, their pay would drop to $25,000.

The state Assembly voted overwhelmingly last month in favor of dissolving Vernon, which has been dogged for decades by allegations that it is a fiefdom run by a small group of people. The state Senate is expected to address the bill, AB 46, sometime next month.

Malkenhorst is one of three Vernon officials to face criminal charges in recent years. Vernon's longtime mayor, Leonis Malburg, was convicted of voter fraud in 2009. Donal O'Callaghan. Vernon's city administrator until mid-2010, faces public corruption charges for allegedly hiring his wife as a city contractor.

Malkenhorst was a larger-than-life figure in Southeast L.A. Friends of Robert Rizzo said the former Bell city administrator saw Malkenhorst as a mentor and confidant. Before The Times revealed last summer that Rizzo was set to earn $800,000 in 2010, Malkenhorst had already eclipsed him by earning more than $911,000 in his final year.

During the height of his time in Vernon, Malkenhorst was driven around in a limousine and often spent his mornings playing golf. When he retired in 2005, he was succeeded by his son, Bruce Malkenhorst Jr., who left in 2008.

Malkenhorst Sr. has become a potent symbol to Vernon's critics. Assembly Speaker John Pérez, the author of the disincorporation bill, often cites in his speeches the $42,000 monthly pension Malkenhorst continues to receive from the California Public Employees' Retirement System.

Pérez's spokesman, John Vigna, said Thursday that Malkenhorst's plea was "a reminder of the status quo that has been allowed to flourish in Vernon for far too long" and further evidence of the need for disincorporation.

Malkenhorst was charged in November 2006, but his trial was held up as the California Supreme Court considered a case involving whether specific criminal intent needed to be proved to obtain a conviction in situations involving misappropriation of public funds

Prosecutor Sean Hassett said the Malkenhorst case became part of the appeal, and as a result dragged on for years without a trial.

"We would show up in court, but there was nothing to do, just status conferencing," he said. "For about the last four years, people were going to court and saying, 'No, your honor, no, your honor, no, your honor.'"

Malkenhorst's attorney, Michael Artan, said the former city administrator never intended to do anything wrong but agreed to the plea so he could move on with his life.

"Mr. Malkenhorst is retired and would like to close the book on this situation," Artan said. "All litigation, whether civil or criminal, is very taxing, and when it's criminal it's emotionally taxing. He's a good guy. I get a sense that he's pleased to have this behind him."

Vernon officials said they hope the plan approved Thursday will slow the push to disincorporate the city.

Some of the changes could dramatically alter the city, such as the formation of an advisory commission to oversee city-owned housing.

City Adminstrator Mark Whitworth called the package, "a very positive step" for Vernon.

But some of the reforms will be delayed for several years.

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