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Cudahy officials guilty, but reformer finds no vindication

Luis Garcia ran for City Council and talked to law enforcement about corruption, but he was ignored. 'The system didn't work for me,' he says.

October 20, 2012|By Jeff Gottlieb, Los Angeles Times
  • Luis Garcia was harassed during his campaigns for Cudahy City Council and he says law enforcement ignored his complaints about corruption. “Am I angry?” he asked. “How can I not be? The system didn’t work for me.”
Luis Garcia was harassed during his campaigns for Cudahy City Council and… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)

Luis Garcia was convinced crooks were running his town.

For years, he had been telling anyone who would listen — the police, the district attorney, even the FBI — that corruption was running wild in Cudahy, one of the small working-class cities that sit in the shadow of Los Angeles.

So he decided to run for City Council and take things into his own hands.

The response stunned him. Bricks were thrown through his windows, paint was splattered on his truck four times — each a different color — and a Molotov cocktail was tossed at his house.

When nothing came of his complaints, he filed public records requests with the city, asking for documents that he hoped would expose wrongdoing. When his requests were ignored, he sent a letter to each member of the City Council, the city attorney and the city manager.

No one replied.

Now, Garcia's suspicions have been confirmed with the quick convictions of three city leaders who were arrested over the summer by the FBI, exposing a pattern of corruption that included bribery, election fixing, extortion, cash passed in shoe boxes and drug use in City Hall.

But Garcia does not feel vindicated.

The ongoing federal corruption investigation in Cudahy had nothing to do with Garcia's complaints. Instead, it was set in motion by the owner of a medical marijuana dispensary who said he was shaken down for bribes, first in Santa Fe Springs and then in Cudahy.

"Am I angry?" he asked. "How can I not be? The system didn't work for me."

Born in Sinaloa, Mexico, Garcia came to the U.S. when he was 8 and grew up in Cudahy. One of his enduring memories is sitting in 10th-grade history class at Bell High when Miss Cook asked students what America meant to them.

Garcia's hand shot up. "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," he said.

"I knew the core American values and that why people immigrated here was the rights people have," said Garcia, 45. "Me being born in another country, it's why we're the beacon of hope to everyone around the world."

While attending Cal State Dominguez Hills and Long Beach City College, Garcia worked summers in Cudahy's maintenance department, later taking a full-time position. In 2000, the district attorney investigated the City Council's appointment of council member George Perez as city manager. Along with other employees, Garcia was called before the grand jury to testify about the appointment. No charges were ever filed.

When Garcia quit in 2006, he was superintendent of parks, streets and buildings, working under Perales, one of the three officials who were arrested. Garcia now works as a public works construction inspector at Long Beach Airport.

From his vantage point as a resident and employee, Garcia said he witnessed the city disintegrating. Youth programs were falling apart, code enforcement appeared to be a tool for keeping people in line and City Hall operated on a closed-door policy.

The next year, he ran for City Council, teaming up with reform candidates Danny Cota and Tony Mendoza.

"The choices are clear," Garcia reflected six years later. "Either stand up to them or shut up and continue to be a victim. I just knew something was wrong and I wasn't going to be a victim."

All three candidates said they were harassed during the campaign. Mendoza, the owner of a trucking business, dropped out after receiving a death threat. He said the FBI told him the call came from City Hall. Paint was splashed on Garcia's white pickup four times. Paint was also thrown onto Cota's car.

Garcia lost by 33 votes. "I told Danny jokingly, 'They almost didn't steal enough votes,' " he said.

He had no idea how right he was. According to documents the U.S. attorney released after the arrests, Perales and Perez opened envelopes containing absentee ballots and threw out those not supporting their candidates.

Without their help, incumbent Osvaldo Conde would have lost by 120 votes, Perales said in a surreptitiously taped conversation.

Garcia and Cota had come so close that in July 2008 they announced they were going to run again. The harassment started anew.

Garcia said he was sitting on the living room couch, watching TV and dozing, when he heard something smack against the house. "I open the front door, and I see flames engulfing my wife's Dodge Dakota pickup," he said.

He grabbed the hose and put it out. The Molotov cocktail had bounced off the house and rolled under the truck.

"That was the first time I questioned whether it was worth it going forward," Garcia said. "Incredibly, my wife's reaction really surprised me. She wouldn't let me out of the race."

There's still a dent in the window frame where a brick hit and dark spots in the driveway from the Molotov cocktail. Garcia copied the license plate of a car that drove off after the brick was tossed. He passed it on to police, but nothing came of it.

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