Within hours after a published report by Los Cerritos Community Newspaper that outlined specific details of a controversial contract between the City of Huntington Park and its longtime powerful city attorney Francisco Leal, the formal relationship between the two entities was officially dissolved on Tuesday.
“The City of Huntington Park and its contracted City Attorney, Francisco Leal of the Law Firm of Leal & Trejo have agreed to part ways. The City Council of Huntington Park received the resignation today of Leal and Trejo which takes effect immediately. Mr. Leal and his firm have represented this City since December 2003 on legal matters pertaining to city business, policies, procedures and contracts.”
“The City appreciates his services to date as the agree to part ways.”
“The leadership of the City of Huntington Park has agreed to end the contract for services with our city attorney,” said City Manager Rene Bobadilla.
“At this time, we feel the legal needs of our city have evolved significantly and it was best for us to consider other options and resources to best meet these needs.”
Bobadilla stated that the search for new legal counsel and resources would begin immediately but could not predict how long it would take to name a new city attorney, up to and including a formal RFP Process. “We will work closely with city council members to make sure that future legal counsel can meet the needs of the city’s current and future operational and business concerns.” he said.
City officials stated that they don’t “expect any significant disruptions to current city business for day-to-day operations while this process moves forward.”
“The selection process will be posted on the city’s website and through other appropriate announcements in the next few weeks.”
Interim legal counsel has yet to be determined.
“As a contracted service to the City of Huntington Park, the City Attorney is not an employee of the city and is not entitled to benefits. City Attorney services are provided through contract agreement and can be terminated by the city at its discretion with appropriate notice.”
Los Cerritos Community News published the contract between the law offices of Leal and Trejo on Tuesday afternoon and reported that taxpayers in the cash starved city could be on the financial hook to legally defend LA County Assessor John Noguez in any possible criminal charges he may face in the future, including the ongoing massive political corruption probe at the LA County Assessor’s office.
Leal, who is the main legal counsel with the firm, came under public scrutiny Monday night after angry residents served formal recall notices on all five city council members.
Leal & Trejo’s legal service rates ranged from $180 per hour not to exceed $30,000 per month, and “special legal services” that shall be billed at $250 per hour with no limitation on a monthly amount, LCCN reported.
A closer inspection of the scope description reveals possible loopholes that can allow Leal to defend Noguez, who is a former city councilman and mayor. Noguez is on a formal paid leave of absence from his responsibilities as Assessor of Los Angeles County and is the central figure in a massive criminal probe that is centered on bribery, forgery and money laundering allegations.
Buried in the “scope description” of the contract is the following directive, “(Leal and Trejo) law firm shall….represent and appear for the City, and City officers or employees, or former City officers or employees, in any or all actions and proceedings in which the city or any such officer or employee…. is a party.”
Many observers say the “former City officer or employee loophole” gave Leal permission to defend Noguez in any possible future criminal trials. Noguez was a Huntington Park City Councilman and Mayor between 2005-2010.
REACTION SWIFT FROM COMMUNITY MEMBERS
Reactions poured into Los Cerritos Community Newspaper from some of Leal’s biggest detractors just hours after the decision was made public.
Longtime resident Valentin Amezquita told LCCN that “if it was not because of the pressure of the residents and the media coverage on the city attorney’s salary at $40,000 per month, it would be business as usual in City of Huntington Park.”
“The problem is not over with the City Attorney’s questionable resignation. The problem of the City still remains in the five remaining City Council members who have mismanaged, misled the City, and will continue to do so if not removed quickly from office,” said Amezquita.
Huntington Park Citizens United, an organization who has been “dedicated to bring to light the corruption within Huntington Park” said through spokesperson Karina Macias that, “Government without transparency means they are hiding something. Clearly Mr. Leal has something to hide do to his quickly resignation following the pressure of the current movement for recall of the City Council members.”
Community Activist Marilyn Sanabria also told LCCN that, “Mr. Leal’s questionable resignation is only because he was unable to answer to residents and the huge media coverage on his unjustifiable salary. Many questions remain unanswered in the City of Huntington Park, such as the questionable ties that the current council members have to, currently under investigation, Los Angeles Tax Assessor, John Noguez, and allegations of corruptions that have risen in part because currently the recall process is underway.”
A local website www.watchourcity.com has been reporting on the political climate surrounding Huntington Park City Hall and other local municipalities for the past decade. ”The problems with the City leadership and related contracts like the City Attorney and others have gone on for far too long,” the Editor for the website told LCCN.
Francisco Leal, a controversial lawyer with close ties to Carson's council majority, has dropped out of the running for the job of city attorney.
An article in Sunday's Daily Breeze identified Leal as the driving force behind Carson's decision to seek bids for its legal services contract.
An associate who spoke with Leal last week said that he was still planning to seek the job at that time. But when the deadline passed Monday, Leal's firm had not submitted a proposal.
"It looks like they probably didn't bid because of the newspaper article," Mayor Jim Dear said. "It was clear there was some type of conspiracy going on and so they backed out, because of the public having a view of what was going on."
Leal did not return a call seeking comment Monday.
In Sunday's article, the Breeze reported that Leal had met with all three members of Carson's council majority. Leal's associates had also contributed $3,800 to Councilman Mike Gipson's campaign for the state Assembly in November.
A source who spoke on condition of anonymity said that Gipson met with Leal at a Sizzler restaurant a few days before the contributions were made. At the time, Leal urged Gipson to put the city attorney's contract out to bid, the source said. Gipson agreed.
Dear, who voted against seeking bids in January, said he now believes the process has been tainted.
"Everything should be completely transparent and open to the public," he said. "I want no backroom deals."
Thirteen other firms - including Aleshire & Wynder, the firm that currently holds the contract - submitted bids by the 2:30 p.m. deadline. Bill Wynder, who serves as Carson's city attorney, said the firm proposed to maintain its current rates for another year.
City Clerk Helen Kawagoe disclosed the names of the 13 bidders on Monday, but did not release the bid amounts or the proposals themselves.
Among those seeking Carson's lucrative contract are well-known firms like Burke, Williams & Sorenson, Best, Best & Krieger, and Jones & Mayer.
"This is a wonderful opportunity," said James Casso of the firm Meyers, Nave, Riback, Silver & Wilson, which submitted a bid. "Carson is a city that has a very active Redevelopment Agency, and very active issues with mobile home parks. You've got the Home Depot Center, the remediation of the old landfill site. There's exciting opportunities within the city."
Carson's contract is expected to be worth as much as $1 million a year to the winning firm. City staff will review the proposals and select five finalists for the council to interview.
A 14th firm attempted to submit a proposal, but its representative arrived two minutes after the deadline and was turned away. That firm, Strategic Counsel, is led by Cynthia McClain-Hill, who made a $1,000 contribution to Gipson's Assembly campaign in December.
CARSON - A lawyer with a reputation for shady political dealings has been courting Carson City Council members as they seek to hire a new city attorney.
Francisco Leal, who serves as the city attorney in Maywood and Huntington Park, has met with all three members of the council majority.
Leal's associates also contributed $3,800 to Councilman Mike Gipson's campaign for the Assembly in November. Arturo Fierro, an attorney who works for Leal, gave $900 while his wife, Maria Fierro, contributed $1,000.
The council voted to put the city attorney's contract out to bid in January. It was a surprise move and passed on a 3-2 vote over strident opposition from Mayor Jim Dear and Councilman Harold Williams. The bids are due on Monday.
At the time, members of the council majority gave only a vague rationale for the decision, saying it would be "healthy" to go through the bid process and would ensure greater "transparency."
But a source who attended a meeting between Leal and Gipson in November said the decision came at Leal's urging.
At the time, Gipson was struggling to raise money for his campaign for the 55th Assembly District. He would go on to lose that race to his better-financed opponent, Warren Furutani.
According to the source, Leal made repeated offers to bundle contributions for Gipson, beginning in late October. Ultimately, Gipson met with Leal and Fierro at the Sizzler restaurant in Carson in mid-November.
At the meeting, Leal urged Gipson to put the attorney's contract out to bid, according to the source who attended. Gipson said he had no control over the votes of the two other majority members: Councilman Elito Santarina and Councilwoman Lula Davis-Holmes.
In an interview, Gipson said he had met Leal, but could not remember the circumstances of the meeting or what was said.
The Town the Law Forgot An L.A. 'burb is mired in gangs, cartels and south-of-the-border-style politics
By Jeffrey Anderson
(Excerpt of article) Ever-present in Cudahy and its neighboring cities are three attorneys who have, over the years, blended municipal law and lobbying to great effect. Arnoldo Beltran, Francisco Leal and David Olivas have made a small fortune representing scandal-plagued cities. Today, Olivas represents Cudahy and Leal represents Maywood, with the two cities sharing a police force that is in disarray.
Perhaps foremost among the many controversies in which these lawyers have been embroiled are allegations explored in a 1999 L.A. Times story that Beltran, a Stanford-educated lawyer, and Leal, a Harvard Law School graduate raised by immigrants in El Paso, were threatening to launch recall campaigns against elected officials in Lynwood, Commerce and Bell Gardens if they did not vote to retain the two men's legal services.
Beltran and Leal, former partners in a now-defunct law firm that also included Olivas as an associate, at the time denied the allegations. Beltran would not comment for this article. Leal did not return several calls for comment. But they would be hard-pressed to deny that their political savvy has earned them a reputation for being influential advisers to many small cities.
In 1999, the firm split, with Leal and Olivas going off to form Leal, Olivas & Jauregui, which represented the city of Cudahy in 2000 when Perez made the revolving-door move, through a series of ordinances drafted by David Olivas, from city councilman to city manager. The resulting grand-jury investigation did not lead to criminal charges but left a lasting mark on the city.
Less than a year later, in Bell Gardens, Beltran drafted a slightly different ordinance with the exact same effect: to upgrade a city councilwoman, Maria Chacon, to city manager. The move had serious consequences. Investigators from the D.A.'s office searched Beltran's offices in 2001 in connection with an investigation of Chacon, whom they later charged with criminal conflict of interest. Beltran hired celebrity defense lawyer Mark Geragos, though Beltran was not named as a target of the investigation, nor was he charged with a crime.
Chacon spent the next several years defending the charges on grounds that Beltran advised her it was okay to vote on the ordinance that allowed her to switch roles from council member to city manager. The state Supreme Court rejected that defense recently, clearing the way for Cooley's office to take her to trial.
The methods of Beltran, Leal and Olivas left a mark on their former law partner Jesse Jauregui, who broke all ties with the group in 2001. Jauregui has this -- and only this -- to say about his old colleagues: "I'm glad to no longer be a part of Tammany Hall'style politics. How far it goes, I do not know. It became a seamy situation."
The legal maneuvering that led to new leadership in Cudahy was part of a larger strategy, says former Cudahy councilwoman Araceli Gonzalez, a child of Mexican immigrants. "They were very outspoken," says Gonzalez of the lawyers who advised Cudahy and Bell Gardens. "They were telling people they were going to take over these cities and put Latinos in power."
Olivas, now in his own law practice while wearing two hats -- as Cudahy city attorney and councilman in Baldwin Park -- argues that the move to anoint Perez as Cudahy city manager was about Latino self-determination, and that change in leadership in small southeast L.A. County cities was for the better.
"People were tired of being governed by outsiders," Olivas says. "This was people from Cudahy, of Cudahy and for Cudahy."
But since that time of upheaval, certain actions by Cudahy officials have raised questions about whether they are acting in the public's best interest as Maywood struggles to get the two cities' shared police force under control.
Big changes have come to Montebello's city government, and they're coming at a lightning pace. But do they signal improvement, or are they evidence for concern?
Recently, the City Council has fired Community Development Director Ruben Lopez, fire Chief Jim Cox, City Attorney Marco Lopez and, just last month, City Administrator Richard Torres.
After serving 18 years, Torres wasn't dismissed for cause, so the council's impatience for "fresh blood" and a "different direction" will cost the city an estimated $200,000.
But of equal interest are the City Council's new hires - Arnoldo Beltran as city attorney and Randy Narramore, Huntington Park's former police chief, as interim city administrator.
We've seen this type of rapid overhaul before. It often begins with the marriage of elected officials to a politically powerful attorney.
For example, South Gate's suffering began with a change in its City Council, which produced a new three-vote majority that ceded power to city treasurer Albert Robles.
Allied with city attorney Salvador Alva, Robles brought in a new city manager, with no experience, and a new police chief. After plundering $20 million from city coffers, Robles was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison.
Similarly, Huntington Park Mayor Edward Escareno hired Francisco Leal as city attorney. Later, Escareno was charged with misappropriation of public funds and convicted of felony grand theft.
In Lynwood, longtime mayor Paul Richards was sentenced to 16 years in prison for municipal corruption, while Beltran, his city attorney, continues in office.
Bell Gardens Councilwoman Maria Chacon also partnered with Beltran, creating an ordinance that allowed Chacon to become city manager.
After the DA charged Chacon with criminal conflict of interest for her vote approving the ordinance, her unsuccessful defense was that Beltran advised her she could.
These incidents weren't entirely unexpected.
Back in 1999, a Los Angeles Times story included allegations that Beltran and Leal had threatened to launch recall campaigns against councilmembers in Lynwood, Commerce and Bell Gardens, if they refused to award city attorney contracts to their law firm.
L.A. Weekly reported that Jesse Jauregui, former partner of Beltran and Leal, said of his former colleagues, "I'm glad to no longer be a part of Tammany Hall-style politics," a reference to Boss Tweed's infamous New York political machine.
So, just what was in the minds of Montebello councilmembers when they voted to employ Beltran as city attorney and Escareno's police chief as interim city administrator?
Whatever the answer, it's hard to gain comfort from reports that Councilwoman Rosie Vasquez was not concerned about Beltran's qualifications or that Mayor Norma Lopez-Reid had been "very impressed" by Narramore, a subject in several well-publicized discrimination lawsuits filed against the Huntington Park police department by minority officers.
If nothing else, it's certainly a time for the people of Montebello to remain attentive.
Richard P. McKee is past-president of Californians Aware and a La Verne resident.
Whittier Daily News, April 13, 2007
ALHAMBRA -- Francisco Leal, the Alhambra Unified School District's general counsel, has resigned from his post to pre-empt a newly constituted school board from firing him.
Leal's law firm, Leal & Dominguez, was appointed to the Alhambra job in April 2003 over the objections of two school board members who said colleagues with personal ties to Leal were forcing the choice through without adequate time for deliberation.
A parent later sued the school district, alleging the decision to appoint Leal's firm was made behind closed doors in violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, the state's open-meeting law.
"We were taking care of friends and not looking at the district as the first priority. That was when things started getting out of hand,' said Barbara Messina, one of the board members who voted against the appointment.
Leal & Dominguez represents the scandal-plagued cities of Bell Gardens, Cudahy and Huntington Park. The firm was fired by Commerce and Lynwood, but was later rehired by Commerce and now does work for the Lynwood Unified School District.
District officials received Leal's resignation letter Tuesday, the same day the board was scheduled to consider canceling his contract at its regular meeting.
Leal says he does not believe the effort to push him out was politically motivated. The school board's plan to consolidate its legal work with another law firm, Lozano Smith, ending the recent practice of spreading the work among several law firms, "makes sense,' according to Leal.
"I get a sense that they're looking to consolidate their legal services. At this point, another firm is doing most of the services. It's been an ongoing issue with the district, how to best handle their legal services,' Leal said.
New school board members Adele Andrade-Stadler and Pat Mackintosh beat two incumbents in November to win their seats, running as a slate with Messina.
The board, like the City Council, had been split between two factions, with Messina and Bob Gin on one side, William Vallejos and Ruth Castro on the other, and John Nunez trying to stay on good terms with both.
The Messina school board slate was backed by Mayor Paul Talbot, and Talbot-supported candidates swept the City Council races, tilting the balance of power on both bodies decidedly in favor of the Talbot faction.
Nunez had voted with Vallejos and Castro to award the general counsel job to Leal's firm, and the support of Andrade- Stadler and Mackintosh gave Messina and Gin the majority they needed to reconsider the contract.
Vallejos, one of the school board incumbents who was unseated, would not comment on the decision to place the Leal contract back on the agenda, though he said it did not surprise him.
"That's the new board, and I prefer not to comment on what they're doing,' said Vallejos, who accepted campaign donations from Leal, and who recently took a job at Leal's firm.
The district's contract with Leal's lobbying firm, Legislative Advocacy Group, was also slated for cancellation at Tuesday's school board meeting and was ended by the school board after Leal's resignation letter. Under that August 2001 contract, the school district paid Legislative Advocacy $4,000 a month, even though board members say the firm had done little work in recent years.
The Leal & Dominguez contract sets hourly rates ranging from $140 an hour for junior attorneys to $175 an hour for Leal's services.
School board members hope consolidating legal work with Lozano Smith will save them money because such contracts are typically negotiated with a single price tag, allowing the client to dispense with the uncertainties of hourly billing.
Unlike Leal's firm, Lozano Smith has a substantial education law practice, representing more than 300 school and college districts.
"We brought up the fact of what we could do to put money back into the classroom. We had to start downsizing someplace. We had quite a few lawyers, and we had to take a few away,' Mackintosh said.
Pasadena Star News, January 13, 2005 -------------------------------------------------------------------
A Scramble for Power, Patronage; The Battle for Lucrative City Attorney Contracts in L.A. County's Heavily Latino
Cities Has Resulted in Some Nasty Allegations. Ex-Partners in a Well-Connected Firm Are in the Center of the Storm
Ted Rohrlich, Times Staff Writer
As new groups scramble to consolidate power and patronage in Los Angeles County's small cities, the pushing and shoving usually takes place underneath public radar.
One exception involves a pair of lawyers who, adversaries complain, have not exactly been using the good government handbook.
The lawyers, Stanford-educated J. Arnoldo Beltran and Harvard-trained H. Francisco Leal, have played power politics in pursuit of lucrative municipal attorney contracts long held by white-dominated law firms, and now also sought by competing Latinos, in cities with new or changing Latino majorities in southeast Los Angeles County and the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys.
They have used the specter of recall campaigns as a threat against newly elected Latino officials if those officials do not vote to give them contracts, the officials or their associates charged in interviews with The Times. In one instance, a political ally of the lawyers, state Sen. Richard Polanco, allegedly did the threatening for them.
The lawyers and Polanco deny the charges.
There is nothing new about mixing recall politics and the pursuit of city attorney jobs, which are awarded in small cities by majorities of five-member city councils. In Los Angeles County's largest cities, city attorneys are elected.
Edward Dilkes, a veteran white municipal lawyer, recalled that in the 1970s, he was part of a generation of lawyers allied with tax conservatives and environmentalists who seized political power largely at the expense of older, pro-development whites who had settled in Southern California after World War II. Dilkes said he got the city attorney's job in Rosemead after advising such allies on how to run a recall there.
But the allegations lodged against Beltran, Leal and Polanco go beyond merely advising. They involve a form of coercion--specifically, promising to call off recalls in return for contracts.
Because of the rifts they have created, the allegations are significant for another reason: They provide an unusual opportunity to glimpse normally secretive operations of the political machine Polanco is building as it continues to gain and keep footholds in Los Angeles County's local governments.
Polanco, a Democrat who represents northeast Los Angeles in the state Senate, has become known as the leading architect of Latino empowerment in California largely through his successes in sponsoring Latino Democratic candidates for the state Legislature. But he has also dabbled in local politics. He acknowledges that he has possible county supervisorial ambitions when he is termed out of the Legislature in 2002.
As his political allies, lawyers Beltran and Leal have enjoyed considerable success in recent years. They have represented, at various times, eight Los Angeles County cities with contracts each worth hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. They also became lobbyists in Sacramento for some of the same cities, earning tens of thousands of dollars more.
But as participants in a volatile business where job security is only as solid as a three-member city council majority, they also experienced their share of defeats--losing some of these same contracts to other lawyers in a hotly competitive field.
This past summer, Beltran and Leal broke up their partnership, dividing the cities that their firm represented in a move that Leal attributed to stylistic and personality differences. Leal is smoother, thinner, and at 39, 10 years younger than Beltran. He is the diplomat. Beltran is more plain-spoken and direct.
The allegations of coercion lodged against them and Polanco involve only three cities--Bell Gardens, which Beltran still represents; the city of Commerce, which Leal's breakaway firm still represents; and Lynwood, from which the Beltran-Leal firm was fired.
In Bell Gardens, two council members facing recalls said that Beltran and Leal told them early this year that the recalls could stop if the law firm were retained.
Councilman Joaquin Penilla said Leal told him: "What does it take for me to get you not to fire us? What does it take? You want us to stop the recall tomorrow? We'll do it."
"Beltran then said, 'I have a lot of powerful friends, and they'll be very disappointed if we get fired,' " Penilla said.
Another of the council members, Salvador Rios, said that Beltran talked to him too.
"He says he can do anything to keep us in office, but don't fire him ," Rios said. "And I said, 'What could you do?' And he said, 'I could stop the recall just for you.' "
Beltran and Leal deny making the statements.
In Commerce, a different form of pressure was applied.
Leal admits he launched a retaliatory campaign to punish the councilman he held most responsible for firing him by targeting the councilman's half-brother, a school board member, for electoral defeat. Leal said he now regrets that move, which he attributes to letting his anger and hurt get the better of him.
He also wrote a petition to recall the councilman.
Then something strange happened.
Facing recall, the councilman, Hugo Argumedo, suddenly reversed himself and voted to rehire Leal.
Exactly what persuaded Argumedo to change his mind remains unclear since Argumedo would not explain himself for this article. But someone who knows him said Argumedo explained to him that he acted under duress, after he was told that the lawyers would dump big money into the recall campaign against him unless he changed his mind.
Leal and Beltran deny making any such threats.
In Lynwood, Polanco himself became involved.
A council member, Ricardo Sanchez, said that Polanco, the state Senate majority leader, told him that a recall attempt against Sanchez could be stopped if the firm were rehired.
Sanchez had broken away from Lynwood's first-ever Latino City Council majority, which had hired the firm, and formed a new majority with two black council members, which had fired Leal and Beltran.
Sanchez said Polanco told him, "We should work things out. The recall could die if we allowed these people to come back."
Sanchez said Polanco referred to Leal in their conversations as "his boy."
Polanco, whose public demeanor is perennially buttoned down, denied threatening Sanchez and denied referring to Leal as his "boy." "I don't talk like that," the senator said.
He said he met with Sanchez and other members of the Latino bloc, at Sanchez's request, to see if he could repair a breach between Sanchez and Leal and patch up the fractured Latino majority.
"I sit down and I tell them . . . 'Look, you guys are just getting started. You've got to learn to work together,' " Polanco said.
The senator said he has no financial ties to Beltran and Leal, other than that they have made campaign contributions to him, and merely supports them as qualified lawyers in a field that "has been closed to ethnic minority law firms."
Beltran and Leal's reputed involvement in recalls, and a perception that they are closely tied to Polanco, have contributed to an atmosphere of fear even in cities where there were no recalls. Some council members who are already known as dissidents were cautious about what they would say. "I don't feel comfortable being quoted by name in any article regarding them ," said one.
Bell Gardens is a 2 1/2-square-mile city of 40,000 in southeast Los Angeles County that was settled by whites fleeing the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and incorporated in 1961. Thirty years later, it became the cradle of the current Mexican American political ascension, when a Latino voting majority recalled a nearly all-white City Council.
Beltran, then a real estate lawyer active in politics, was involved in that recall effort through an organization called NEWS for America, whose "news" was that Mexican Americans no longer needed to wait and practice coalition-building with other ethnic groups since they were so numerous--N(orth), E(ast), W(est) and S(outh).
Two years after the Bell Gardens recall, its local leader, Maria Chacon, herself won election to the council, and Beltran became city attorney. Chacon put together her own three-member slate of council candidates to join her on the governing body in 1997.
Beltran backed this slate--which he knew, if successful, would contain his future employers--by asking political friends to contribute. There was nothing illegal or unusual about that. Some city attorneys or would-be city attorneys do not do it because they take a long view that contributions aimed at making friends also, unavoidably, make enemies of the friends' opponents. But Beltran's view was: "Unless and until the rules change, I'm going to help people who help me."
Shortly after the slate was elected, trouble erupted between its members and Chacon and that led to her effort to recall them.
As tensions mounted, former Bell Gardens Planning Commissioner Alfredo Martinez said that Beltran told him repeatedly that a recall was in the works against the slate, even before a petition was filed. "He said, 'These bozos don't believe we're going to recall them,' " Martinez said. Beltran denies making the remark.
Many issues were involved. One was the use of city funds to subsidize a single-family-home development to be built in part by TELACU, an acronym for The East Los Angeles Community Union. TELACU is an influential nonprofit community development corporation, containing profit-making subsidiaries, that has long been a mainstay in providing Polanco with financial and political support.
Financing for the Bell Gardens portion of TELACU's 53-house project, which extended into neighboring Commerce, was contingent on a $ 2-million Bell Gardens loan.
The City Council initially gave the project a green light. But Chacon's handpicked council members, David Torres, Salvador Rios and Joaquin Penilla, had second thoughts. They said they worried that the loan might not be repaid and that houses, which they said were to be sold for $ 150,000 or more, would prove too expensive for most Bell Gardens residents.
Beltran stepped in to try to save the deal, Rios said.
He said Beltran called him to arrange a private meeting between him, Polanco and the key developer, TELACU President David Lizarraga's son, Michael, who is TELACU's executive vice president.
Beltran denies setting up the meeting.
At the meeting, which Penilla also said he attended, Rios said Polanco pushed for the housing project, saying it would be good for the city.
Polanco, who early in his career worked for TELACU, acknowledged attending. "I was invited to give a recommendation . . . on the experience of TELACU as a housing developer and to share with them history about the organization . . . and I did, as I have done for others who I believe are capable and qualified and, if given the shot, will do a good job," he said.
Rios and Penilla remained unmoved, and together with Torres, voted against the project.
As a recall movement against all three gathered steam, they also moved to fire Beltran. Leal said he then stepped in to try to prevent the loss of a "million-dollar" account. "I'm the relationships guy," Leal said. "I can ask. I can plead. . . . Arnoldo Beltran can't."
Leal said he sought out council member Penilla to make "mostly a plea based on loyalty."
Leal, as well as Beltran, denies Penilla's account that Leal offered to call off the recall against Penilla in return for Penilla's vote.
Leal said it was absurd to imagine that he would say he could stop a recall inspired by Chacon, the most influential politician in town.
Rios, however, said that first Beltran and then Chacon herself made similar pitches to him.
Rios said Beltran told him: "I could stop the recall just for you."
Then Chacon joined their conversation and said, as Rios tells it: "If you don't fire Beltran, we can keep you in office."
Beltran denies saying he would call off a recall. But he acknowledged that he listened as Chacon said "basically, 'We want to work with you.' Obviously, the comment means, 'We don't want you out of office.' "
Chacon said: "I don't recall that at all."
Penilla and Rios, along with their ally, Torres, went ahead with their vote to fire Beltran.
Beltran responded by helping to raise money for their recall. "Some of my friends contributed," he said.
Polanco reported giving $ 1,000 through a campaign committee he controlled.
Saying that was his only involvement in the recall, he explained that he gave the money to help Chacon, who "has been a strong friend and supporter of all of us." By "all of us," he said he meant himself and Democratic state Sen. Martha Escutia, a lawyer whose legislative career he launched in 1992 by helping her win election to the state Assembly representing Bell Gardens and other southeast cities. He also included Democratic Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh, a former Polanco aide who became a law clerk and lobbyist for the Beltran and Leal firm, and then last year, Polanco's choice to replace Escutia in the Assembly.
Escutia's campaign records show that she, too, sent a $ 1,000-contribution to the Bell Gardens recall committee. She sent it to the address of the Beltran and Leal law firm in downtown Los Angeles.
The recall was successful.
The day after new City Council members were sworn in, Beltran was rehired.
The new members, who had campaigned on a pledge to approve the TELACU project, quickly did that too.
Commerce is a small industrial city six miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles that boasts that it has no local property or utility taxes. Established in 1960 when industrialists and homeowners decided they would be better off incorporating than risking annexation, the city has more than 40,000 workers but only 12,000 residents.
Leal got the Commerce city attorney job in 1994 and kept it until 1997, when City Councilman Hugo Argumedo led a move to oust him. Leal attributed their squabble to personnel matters. There were also disagreements about a multimillion-dollar project known as Rail Cycle.
Rail Cycle was to involve construction of a giant facility in Commerce to remove recyclables from 8 million pounds of garbage that would be trucked daily into the city from other towns. The remainder of the waste would be put on trains bound for a landfill in the San Bernardino County desert.
The project's partners, Waste Management Inc. and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Co., hired a well-connected Latino political figure, Robert Morales, a longtime aide to former state Sen. Art Torres, the current state Democratic Party chairman, as their consultant. His job was to drum up community support for the project.
With Morales' help, Rail Cycle won a conditional use permit from the City Council in late 1992. But four years later, when Argumedo was running for council on a campaign against the project, major construction had still not begun. Rail Cycle's partners cited unforeseen delays in winning approval for their desert landfill.
Citing the inaction, Argumedo asked Leal for a legal opinion that he could use to revoke Rail Cycle's conditional use permit.
But Leal would not provide one. Leal said that he was concerned Rail Cycle could sue the city and win and advised that a better course was to wait, since the project might die of natural causes.
Argumedo would not be interviewed for this article, but associates described him as fed up with what he saw as Leal dragging his feet. He engineered Leal's firing and the hiring of a replacement who said that the city would be on solid legal ground stripping Rail Cycle of its permit.
Rail Cycle sued, and Leal's replacement, interim City Atty. Fernando Villa, won in court, persuading a judge that Rail Cycle could not reserve land indefinitely for future use. The company has appealed.
Leal and some of his associates, meanwhile, set out to punish Argumedo for having fired Leal.
Initially, they targeted Argumedo's half-brother, Hector Chacon, the effective head of Argumedo's local political family, who at the time was running for reelection to the school board of Montebello Unified, which also serves Commerce and nearby cities.
Leal and others associated with either Polanco or the law firm helped fund a campaign committee, called Parents for a Better Education, whose sole purpose was to defeat Hector Chacon.
Leal launched and directed the committee without Beltran's knowledge, both men say.
Polanco denies any connection with Rail Cycle or the committee.
The committee's records show that besides Leal, key donors included David J. Olivas, another lawyer who worked for the Beltran-Leal firm; George Castro, a financial manager who is Polanco's brother-in-law; George Pla, a longtime TELACU insider who heads Cordoba, a consulting firm; and Dario Frommer, then an attorney-lobbyist subcontractor for the Beltran-Leal firm. Frommer later became Gov. Gray Davis' appointments secretary, recommending to the governor who should get patronage jobs in state government, and is now an Assembly candidate from Los Angeles.
Chacon would not agree to be interviewed for this article.
However, his campaign consultant, Phil Giarrizzo, said his client had no doubt where his opposition was coming from. Chacon identified "the people who want to see me defeated because of my brother" as "Polanco, Leal," the consultant said.
Chacon, who had been the school board's top vote-getter, barely survived the challenge, finishing in third place with only three seats up for grabs.
Leal also wrote a petition to recall Argumedo.
He wrote it at the request of Edgar S. Miles, a Commerce activist who had reasons of his own to target Argumedo, according to both Miles and Leal.
Faced with the possibility of being recalled, Argumedo suddenly reversed himself on the question of Leal as city attorney and voted to rehire him.
Someone who knows Argumedo, who was interviewed on condition that his name not be published, said the councilman explained to him that the change of position was made under duress. "They told me, if we didn't take them back, they'd put $ 30,000 into the recall against me," the source quoted Argumedo as having said.
Leal and Beltran deny having made such a threat.
Leal suggested that Argumedo voted to rehire him for another reason. Leal said that the law firm that replaced his was costing more. The increased legal fees had become a big issue in the recall.
Who was behind the recall remains something of an official mystery.
Donors to the effort were not enumerated in a campaign report. Miles said that was because no contributor gave more than $ 100 and therefore names did not have to be disclosed under state law.
But not everyone believed that the recall was exclusively the grass-roots effort it seemed to be.
Bill Orozco, a political operative and one-time aide to former state Senate majority leader David Roberti, said he believed one of Roberti's successors, Polanco, was behind it.
He said he visited Polanco to try to persuade him to call off the recall, which had also targeted an Argumedo council ally.
"I told Polanco, 'Can we stop that recall taking place in Commerce?' " Orozco said. "And he said, 'No, I'm going to see that the two candidates are recalled.' He said, 'I didn't like what they did to people who are loyal to me , so I'm going to punish them and take them out of office.' "
The two candidates were indeed recalled, although Argumedo later won reelection.
Polanco said that his alleged conversation with Orozco never took place. "People are going to say things and do things and create things based on sour grapes, and I think I get credited at times for things that I have very little to do with," the senator said. In fact, he said: "I had nothing to do with that recall."
If Bell Gardens was ground zero in Latino takeovers of city councils from whites, Lynwood was ground zero in Latino takeovers from blacks.
A three-member Latino council slate wrested control of the city from black politicians in 1997, with the aide of an independent expenditure campaign financed by an out-of-town billboard company looking for business opportunities and managed by the political consultant-husband of state Sen. Escutia.
After the slate won, Leal sought the city attorney's job and said he asked Polanco to lobby on his behalf. Polanco acknowledges providing a reference.
Leal got the job but lasted--as did slate unity--less than a year.
Slate member Ricardo Sanchez had a series of disagreements with his fellow Latinos on the council, who subsequently launched a recall campaign against him. Sanchez then allied himself with two black council members, forming a new majority which named him mayor and fired Leal. Sanchez blamed the lawyer--Leal says inaccurately--for playing a role in the recall attempt.
Leal said he once again turned to Polanco for help.
Polanco paid Sanchez a visit.
There are two very different accounts of what happened next.
Sanchez and a friend whose account was read into the record at a public meeting said that the senator told Sanchez that the recall attempt could be stopped, if he came back into the fold and voted to rehire Leal and/or a Latino city manager who had also gotten the ax.
"He was saying, 'We should work things out. The recall could die,' " Sanchez said.
Leal and Polanco deny that Polanco made that statement. Polanco said he had nothing to do with the recall attempt in Lynwood. He said he spoke generally, as a peacemaker. "I sit down and I tell them . . . 'Look, you guys are just getting started. You've got to learn to work together.' "
Leal says he regards what happened in Lynwood as "a tragic story, where a Latino community has been empowered but has been unable to overcome differences for a greater good."
He portrays himself as something of an idealist, trying to help "well-intentioned, humble individuals who want to improve these cities," but don't have the education or experience to do so.
Sanchez is not buying this. He survived the recall attempt when a petition alleging numerous improprieties on his part was invalidated for lack of enough valid signatures. But he remains embittered. "I have a lot of hate," he said. "They made me look like the worst guy in the whole world."
LYNWOOD - The school board has voted 3-2 not to renew its contract with the Leal and Trejo law firm as the district's counsel.
School board members Rachel Chavez, Guadalupe Rodriguez and Maria Lopez voted against renewing the contract, while school board President Jose Luis Solache and board clerk Alfonso Morales voted in favor of retaining Leal and Trejo.
Chavez, who opposed the hiring of Leal & Trejo from the beginning, said she never felt that the firm was knowledgeable enough to guide a school district as large as Lynwood's.
The firm was originally hired by Lopez, Rodriguez, Solache and Morales, Chavez said, but the time has come when "you realize, or you wonder who the firm is working for - the school district or the superintendent."
Rodriguez and Lopez have recently questioned the firm's bills, asking for line-item expense reports, but have yet to get the answers they sought. Rodriguez said she has been concerned for months about the firm's high billing statements. Lopez agreed with Rodriguez.
Chavez said she is willing to work with the law firm while the school district draws up an request for proposal, which according to the superintendent, is still being worked on.
In hiring a new law firm, Chavez said she would prefer the school board consider one that strictly caters to school districts.
The longtime school board member said she believes that Leal & Trejo have contributed to school board members' campaigns and said that has no business in the school district.
"That's what got the city in trouble," she said.
Sources at the school district have said that Superintendent Dhyan Lal is hoping the upcoming school board election, which will be joined with the city's general election on Nov. 6, brings a change in the board, one that will allow Leal & Trejo to stay on the job.
Lal denied that accusation.
He said he only wants what is best for the children and that it is not true that the law firm has catered to his wishes, rather than those of the district.
"They don't work for me, they work for the school district, but I have the last word," Lal said. "So they have to work with me."
Before casting their 3-2 vote, school board members discussed Leal and Trejo's $1.2 million budget for the 2006-07 fiscal year.
"This type of money is outrageous," Chavez said. "That type of money has a very big impact on our budget. It's money that we could use for the children."
The law firm at one point, Lopez said, had a cap of $500,000, but "they've gone overboard," she said.
A lot of times, Lopez said, the superintendent and the attorneys would leave school board members out of the loop.
"That's just my personal view," she said. "Our job as a school board and the job of whoever is our district counsel has the job of protecting the district's funds, and keeping expenditures down, not the other way around."
Whether the superintendent believes he has the last word or not, it's the school board members who are elected - by the community - to represent them, Lopez said.
"It's all about transparency," she said. "Both the superintendent and the attorneys are supposed to keep us informed of what's going on. We're supposed to be working together, not being left in the dark about issues that are costly."
Aside from the firm's $1.2 million budget for the 2006-07 fiscal year, the Leal & Trejo firm also serves as the district's lobbying representatives in Sacramento, for which it receives $3,500 a month. That contract has been in effect for three years as well and according to Chavez, is a separate fee from the legal fees.
Chavez was the only one who voted against hiring general counsel for that job, too. This was the first time in three years that Chavez was joined by other members of the school board in voting against renewing the Leal and Trejo contract.
Fernando Leal served as the city of Lynwood's attorney for several years in the 1990s under a former partnership with former City Attorney Arnoldo Beltran. Beltran was removed as the city attorney earlier this year.
Several calls to the Leal and Trejo offices in downtown Los Angeles were not returned by presstime and Trejo could not be reached on his cell phone for comment.
School board President Solache also could not be reached for comment.
The school board did agree to grant Leal and Trejo a temporary contract, until it hires a new law firm.
The three school board members said they expect the requests for proposals for a new law firm to go out soon.
Alhambra school board's hiring blasted; Three law firms to represent district
By Cindy Chang, Staff Writer
ALHAMBRA -- School board President Barbara Messina says she is "totally opposed' to the board majority's hiring as general counsel a law firm that has represented the scandal-plagued cities of Bell Gardens, Cudahy and Huntington Park, calling the appointment "politically motivated.'
Board members Bill Vallejos and Ruth Castro acknowledged having personal relationships with some of the lawyers at downtown Los Angeles-based Leal Olivas Abich & Dominguez, but denied that those ties influenced their decision to hire the firm.
"What's wrong with knowing the people that you hire? I don't see anything wrong with that at all,' Vallejos said.
Leal Olivas donated $1,000 to Castro's re-election committee last December, campaign filing records show.
"There have been people who've contributed, and I've voted against them,' Castro said. "I can't see that any contribution buys my vote.'
A lobbying firm headed by Francisco Leal, former South Pasadena city attorney and one of the law firm's partners, has been employed by the district since 2001 and was listed on the California secretary of state's Web site as one of California's top 100 lobbying firms for the year 2000.
The resolution appointing Leal's firm as general counsel for the district came over the objections of two board members who said they were strong- armed into a vote without being given a chance to research other options.
"I'm totally opposed to it. The process was not followed,' said Messina. The board majority "came back and said, we are going to hire this firm.' Also opposing the hire was school board member Bob Gin.
The resolution passed by the board calls for Leal Olivas to serve as the district's general counsel and the firm Burke, Williams & Sorensen to work on labor negotiations and special education issues. A third firm, Alvarado, Smith & Sanchez, which was previously the district's general counsel, will represent the district in litigation-related matters.
At a time when the district is trying to trim $7 million from next year's budget, the district cannot afford to employ three law firms, Messina said. Law firms bill by the hour, but the district may be charged higher rates if its lawyers fill only niche duties, she said.
"We can't afford, nor do we need, Leal as legal counsel when we're being asked to tighten our belts,' Messina said.
Messina expressed fears that the new general counsel might be granted license to bill excess hours because of its personal ties to some board members.
"It'll be interesting to see the time they put in. We don't need counsel at meetings all the time,' Messina said.
Board member John Nunez was the third vote to hire the firm.
Messina called the decision to appoint the firm "politically motivated' but declined to provide more details.
The city of Alhambra canceled a planned Latin music festival last fall after questions were raised about ties between two members of the City Council and the firm appointed to organize the festival.
One of those councilmen, Dan Arguello, had previously fought allegations that he helped award a city towing contract to a company because it gave generously to his campaign.
Pasadena Star News, April 24, 2003
No Place of Grace
Maywood's Mayor faces a death threat, allegations of corruption and, now, a recall
By Matthew Fleischer
"...[Maywood Mayor Felipe] Aguirre says that before applying for the funds he consulted David Mango, Maywood director of building and planning, and then-City Attorney Francisco Leal. He says they told him that, as a business owner, Aguirre was entitled to participate in the program - provided he didn't use his political influence to skew the application process in his favor.
But the city attorney whose advice Aguirre sought has problems of his own. Back in 1999, the Los Angeles Times reported that Leal, working as a private attorney, threatened to launch a recall campaign against city council members in Lynnwood, Commerce and Bell Gardens if those cities didn't retain his legal services. Last year Jesse Jauregui, Leal's former law partner, told Jeffrey Anderson that Leal's style was straight out of Tammany Hall, the infamously corrupt Democratic club that ran New York City politics from the birth of the nation through the 1950s.
Aguirre says he had to fire Leal a few months ago for allegedly demanding kickbacks from a local developer, Gabriel Guerrero, who was negotiating with Maywood's Community Redevelopment Agency for several fat city redevelopment contracts. According to Aguirre, Leal is now among those leading the recall effort.
Neither Leal, nor Maywood Club Towing owner Tooradj Khosroabadi, also known as "Tony Bravo," responded to calls for comment."