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Two more ex-Coliseum employees face criminal charges

A former warehouse worker and a former payroll clerk are accused of stealing Coliseum funds by cashing falsified payroll checks. Eight people now have been charged in corruption scandal.

December 06, 2012|By Paul Pringle, Andrew Blankstein and Rong-Gong Lin II, Los Angeles Times
  • Prosecutors filed theft and conspiracy charges Wednesday against two former employees of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, including Maria De La Torre, 38, a former payroll clerk.
Prosecutors filed theft and conspiracy charges Wednesday against two… (Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum )

Prosecutors filed theft and conspiracy charges Wednesday against two former employees of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, bringing to eight the number of people charged in the corruption scandal at the historic stadium.

The Los Angeles city attorney's office has accused former warehouse worker Ulises Luna, 33, and former payroll clerk Maria De La Torre, 38, of stealing Coliseum funds by cashing falsified salary checks.

In the complaint, prosecutors allege that De La Torre continued to issue checks to Luna after he was laid off a year ago and split the proceeds with him. Luna collected at least 10 checks totaling nearly $4,000 between January and April of this year, the complaint alleges.

FULL COVERAGE: L.A. Coliseum under scrutiny

Each faces five misdemeanor counts of grand theft, embezzlement, conspiracy, receiving stolen property and passing a forged document. They also are accused of one count each of illegally possessing a check.

If convicted on all charges, they could be sentenced to a maximum of three years in county jail and be required to pay restitution.

In March, three former Coliseum managers, two prominent concert promoters and a stadium contractor were indicted on numerous felony counts in a Los Angeles County district attorney's investigation. The probe followed Times reports of financial irregularities at the taxpayer-owned stadium and companion Sports Arena.

Luna and De La Torre are due in court next month, when they will be ordered to post bail. Neither could be reached for comment Wednesday.

Luna was laid off in December 2011. De La Torre later resigned and has repaid $1,500 to the Coliseum, prosecutors said.

"This kind of criminal activity should not be tolerated, especially in a public agency," City Atty. Carmen Trutanich said in a statement. "We have a responsibility to protect public funds, to recover those funds when stolen and hold those offenders accountable for their crimes."

Authorities said the investigation is ongoing.

The city attorney's office is handling the case against Luna and De La Torre because it is responsible for prosecuting misdemeanors. De La Torre was arrested last May in the district attorney's felony case, but then the case was referred to the city attorney, prosecutors said.

In the felony case, the six defendants are charged in a broad corruption scheme involving alleged bribery, embezzlement, kickbacks and conflicts of interest. Former Coliseum General Manager Patrick Lynch, who ran the stadium for 17 years, has pleaded guilty in an arrangement with prosecutors to avoid jail. He was charged with taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks from the janitorial contractor, Tony Estrada.

Former stadium events manager Todd DeStefano, ex-technology manager Leopold Caudillo Jr., and concert promoters Pasquale Rotella and Reza Gerami have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial. Estrada is a fugitive.

The district attorney's investigation was launched in February 2011 after The Times, citing records and interviews, disclosed financial dealings between DeStefano and Rotella, head of Insomniac Inc., which has staged rave concerts at the Coliseum. Subsequent Times reports focused on payments to DeStefano by Gerami and questionable financial practices by other stadium employees.

The disclosures led to audits by the Coliseum Commission and city controller's office. In addition, the state Fair Political Practices Commission opened an inquiry into DeStefano and the federal authorities are investigating large cash payments made by Coliseum managers to a union representative for worker salaries.

The crimes Luna and De La Torre have been charged with allegedly occurred on the watch of interim General Manager John Sandbrook, who replaced Lynch in March 2011 after being recruited by County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, a Coliseum commissioner.

Yaroslavsky declined to comment, saying he knew nothing about the case beyond what The Times reported on its website Wednesday.

Sandbrook, a former administrator at UCLA who has been a close friend of Yaroslavsky since their college days there, declined to answer questions about how the alleged thefts could have occurred so long after the scandal broke. He would say only that they were "discovered under the new management."

Wednesday's charges came as the commission reported that it lost $3.4 million in the fiscal year ending last June. Its combined losses for the last three fiscal years is now $10.6 million. Until late last year, then-Commission President David Israel and other panel members had insisted the stadium was in the black.

The commission has since voted to turn over control of the Coliseum to USC, whose football team is the stadium's main tenant. In its current form, the 42-year lease between the commission and the private university does not take effect until USC reaches a separate agreement with the state, which owns the land under the Coliseum.

The proposed USC-state pact is expected to be the subject of town-hall-style meetings in the coming weeks.

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