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Federal agents arrest 3 in Cudahy bribery case

Wiretap transcripts suggest a city rife with graft. Investigators may also be looking into election fraud.

June 22, 2012|By Jeff Gottlieb, Ruben Vives and Joe Mozingo, Los Angeles Times
  • Cudahy City Councilman Osvaldo Conde, 50, surrenders to FBI agents at his jewelry store after a five-hour standoff with the FBI on Friday. He and two other city officials, David Silva and Angel Perales, have been charged with bribery.
Cudahy City Councilman Osvaldo Conde, 50, surrenders to FBI agents at his… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

The negotiations went down during weeks of profane and elliptical conversation, an FBI informant asking for a hard figure: How much cash would it take to bribe Cudahy officials into letting him open his marijuana dispensary?

Two council members and a longtime city official were arrested by federal agents Friday morning and charged with bribery. But documents released as part of the criminal complaint suggest that the malfeasance is far more widespread. More than 130 pages of wiretapped conversations depict a city rife with corruption, as well as bribery so pervasive that it's practically expected.

"These guys are not your typical, uh, council people," the longtime official, Angel Perales, advised the informant in a phone call on Jan. 26, according to a transcript released by the U.S. attorney. "They've dealt with, you know, people that throw money down."

The charges are the latest in a string of corruption allegations that have rocked the small blue-collar cities in southeast Los Angeles County. Bell, Cudahy's neighbor to the north, saw most of its city leadership indicted in 2010 on corruption charges. Investigations continue in other towns, including Maywood and Vernon, where three top leaders have been criminally charged in the last few years.

The federal investigation also appears to be looking at whether elections in Cudahy were tainted by fraud. Two FBI agents served a grand jury subpoena to the city clerk Wednesday asking for documents relating to the March 2007 and March 2009 City Council elections, including ballots and documents pertaining to absentee votes.

"The allegations in this case describe a corrosive and freewheeling attitude among certain officials in the city of Cudahy," said U.S. Atty. Andre Birotte Jr.

In the transcript, Perales ridiculed another person who tried to "buy … the whole City Council with five laptops." He added: "These guys don't want [stuff] like that. All they want is … cash."

He made it clear that political donations were not acceptable, according to the transcript: "They don't want you to contribute to the campaign and ain't get jack. They can't get anything there.... Because they have to report everything that they get on checks."

After weeks of discussions in restaurants and over the telephone, Perales and City Council members David Silva and Osvaldo Conde allegedly took $17,000 divided in separate envelopes on Feb. 28 for allowing the unnamed informant's dispensary to operate in the city, according to the affidavit. The federal agents said this was just the first installment; the informant had been told he would be left alone as long "you go back every Christmas."

Silva, 61, who is the mayor, and Perales, 43, who ran the code enforcement division, were arrested at their homes. Conde, 50, surrendered at his jewelry store after a five-hour standoff with the FBI. Perales resigned Tuesday before the charges were filed.

Perhaps more disturbing than the alleged $17,000 in bribes were the numerous conversations that brought out sordid details in the transcripts, such as Perales and Conde getting a stake in a new erotic massage parlor. Or a former top city official said to be so "high" all the time that he could not make decisions. Or Conde showing up with a revolver to meet the informant at the El Portrero Club, along with two armed bodyguards who brought "drinks and women, from both the over-21 and under-21 sections." (The bodyguards were city employees, one at the Parks and Recreation Department, one at code enforcement.)

Or Perales scorning the city prosecutor, Edgar Coronado, for missing the chance to bribe the council to get the much-higher-paying job of city attorney.

"Don't fall asleep at the wheel like Edgar," he said in one of the transcribed calls.

"What the hell does he prosecute?" the informant asked.

"Nothing."

"Anytime someone has a chicken out?"

"Yeah."

The confidential informant, who had run a dispensary in a nearby city, first told agents about his dealings with Cudahy late last year. The affidavit does not say how his relationship with the FBI came about. He told agents that he was referred to Perales by Coronado, whom he had known for at least six years, according to the transcript.

The three first met for dinner at a restaurant in Montebello on Jan. 18, the affidavit says. Coronado told the informant that Conde and Silva were running for reelection and needed "donations," the transcript says. "Let's just put it out there for what it is: They want some money. Now we have to be careful with the money, but ... [assure] them that the money will be coming in their direction."

They mentioned that Conde was the most powerful person in the city. And at one point in the transcript, Coronado appears to suggest that since redevelopment money is drying up, some council members were going to get cash from dispensaries and strip clubs. After that, the informant asks how much money he should give Conde and Silva.

"Between five and, and, uh, ten," Perales said in the transcript.

"Like you think each?" the informant asked.

"Let's start with five."

Five more meetings and six calls were recorded.

In one conversation, a "discussion of alleged corrupt dealings involving local towing businesses" was omitted from the transcript because it was off topic.

In another, Perales told the informant how he advised Coronado to get the $240,000-a-year job as city attorney, four times his current salary.

"Obviously, I wasn't interested in playing that game," Coronado told The Times on Friday. "There was no way I was going to do that."

At one point in the transcript, Perales even raised the idea that he and the council members might get a cut of sales from the dispensary, an amount the informant said he expected to be $2.5 million the first year.

"How does the saying go?" Perales asked in Spanish. "Money makes the monkey dance."

jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com

ruben.vives@latimes.com

joe.mozingo@latimes.com

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