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Appeals panel voids case against Irwindale officials

Justices rule that Los Angeles County prosecutors failed to produce key evidence showing defendants in a favorable light during grand jury hearings.

April 25, 2013|By Jack Leonard, Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles County prosecutors failed to present grand jurors with evidence favorable to Irwindale officials before seeking an indictment in connection with lavish business trips that city officials took to New York, a panel of state appellate justices said Thursday.

The appeals court panel threw out the embezzlement counts against four Irwindale officials, who prosecutors said enjoyed meals at pricey restaurants, attended Broadway shows and saw baseball games paid for by the city during trips to meet with bond raters in an effort to obtain better bond ratings.

The appellate panel described the amount of money spent on the trips as "shocking" as well as "an abuse of the public trust and perhaps violative of certain criminal laws." The panel's opinion noted that one New York visit cost Irwindale more than $62,000 and included stays at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Central Park and tickets to the musical "Wicked."

But the panel's three justices also ruled that prosecutors should have presented two significant documents to the grand jury that might have undermined the district attorney's theory that the officials were "double dipping."

A prosecutor said district attorney's officials were reviewing the decision and would consider appealing or refiling charges against the Irwindale officials.

"We still believe that our case on the merits is strong," said Assistant Head Deputy Dist. Atty. Max Huntsman.

The appellate court's decision comes about a year after Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kathleen Kennedy dismissed perjury and voter fraud charges against Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon and his wife, finding that the district attorney's Public Integrity Division failed to properly present the grand jury with evidence favorable to the couple.

Then-Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley sharply criticized the judge's ruling, and his office refiled the charges, which accuse the Alarcons of lying about living in a house in Panorama City so that the councilman could run for his 7th District seat. Last year, another judge ordered the couple to stand trial after listening to evidence at a preliminary hearing.

In the Irwindale case, public integrity prosecutors argued that three council members — Mark Breceda, Rosemary Ramirez and Manuel Garcia — were paid $75 daily allotments meant to cover meals and travel. Financial consultants initially paid for expenses on the New York trips, including the meals of city officials, and were later reimbursed by the city.

The justices wrote that prosecutors failed to show grand jurors documents in which the city manager explained that the daily allotments were to be paid even if meals had otherwise been paid for.

The documents "arguably would have shown that there was no deceit whatsoever," Justice Jeffrey W. Johnson wrote for the panel. "While greed and fraudulent intent may be siblings, they certainly are not identical twins."

The district attorney's office argued that the two prosecutors who presented the case to the grand jury — Huntsman and Deputy Dist. Atty. Susan Schwartz — had not known about the documents. But the appellate justices said other district attorney's officials had known, including the lead investigator on the case.

"It is the duty of the office of the district attorney to gather all the information made available throughout the office and present that information to the grand jury," Johnson wrote in the opinion.

The district attorney's office initially charged Irwindale officials in 2010 with misappropriating public funds. In December 2011, prosecutors asked the grand jury to issue indictments for embezzlement against most of the same officials and the misappropriation charges were dismissed.

The appellate court on Thursday threw out the embezzlement counts against Breceda, Ramirez, Garcia and retired Finance Director Abe De Dios. Former City Manager Steve Blancarte pleaded guilty in 2011 to misappropriating public funds and paid $20,000 in restitution and fines.

De Dios' attorney, Daniel V. Nixon, said he and his client were pleased with the appellate court's ruling and believed "all along that the case should have been dismissed." Steven Graff Levine, who represents Garcia, said his client was gratified by the decision.

A single count against Ramirez remains, alleging that she attempted to dissuade a witness from testifying.

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