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California politicians stole their money. Will that make them care about democracy?

Southeast Los Angeles struggles with decades of corruption

A vicious combination of voter ambivalence, substandard oversight and human temptation has hollowed out small-city democracy in southeast Los Angeles for decades. Local officials are looking for a new way forward.
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A vicious combination of voter ambivalence, substandard oversight and human temptation has hollowed out small-city democracy in southeast Los Angeles for decades. Local officials are looking for a new way forward.

The scandal that shook the city of Bell seven years ago casts a long shadow.

Eye-popping inflated public salaries. Personal loans to employees from the city budget. Illegal tax increases. Shakedowns of local businesses. A car-towing scheme to generate revenue. Seven politicians and city administrators convicted.

The events still hung over a council meeting in this city of 36,000 in southeastern Los Angeles County on a recent Wednesday evening.

The owner of a tire store in town thanked the new council in Spanish for bringing Bell back from “chaos.” During the discussion over a contract for building and safety services, a staff member mentioned the option of issuing a request for proposals: “Given the city’s history, the RFP process indicates transparency.”

“Obviously, it’s something that we will never forget,” councilman Ali Saleh said in an interview.

He noted that Bell has one of highest property tax rates in the county because residents are still paying off massive bond debt accrued by former officials to fund a failed real estate venture. “It’s fresh in their heads every time they pay their property tax.”

Bell showed what can happen when the public stops paying attention to its leaders’ actions. A vicious combination of voter ambivalence, sorely lacking oversight and human temptation has hollowed out local democracy in southeast Los Angeles County for decades.

Five cities in Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon’s district have sent more than a dozen city officials to jail or prison in the last 11 years.

Too many officials have violated the public trust in the area’s small- and medium-sized cities, which are working class and heavily immigrant. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, whose district is at the heart of the most recent troubles, dubs it the “corridor of corruption.”

Tired of a reputation shaped by shortcomings, however, he is one of a new group of representatives forged by the scandals who hope to shed the negative image that has plagued the area.

Rendon knows something about poor voter turnout: In his first primary in 2012, just 8,776 people voted for him.

Now he holds one of the most powerful positions in California politics, a platform he hopes will show his constituents there can be another way.

“It is about establishing processes and a culture, what people want out of their elected officials,” Rendon said. “It’s about consistency and keeping our word.”

Political scandals are almost dishearteningly pervasive in southeast Los Angeles County. In Rendon’s district alone, a string of five cities along the 710 freeway has sent more than a dozen city officials to jail or prison in the last 11 years:

‘Corridor of corruption’

More than a dozen city officials have been convicted in the past 11 years in a string of five Southern California cities.
Five Southern California cities with corruption scandals 

▪ At the northern tip is miniscule Maywood, 1.2-square miles and 28,000 residents tucked into a bend in the Los Angeles River. Teetering on the verge of bankruptcy in 2010, it laid off most of the city staff, disbanded its police force and turned over administrative functions to neighboring Bell, just weeks before the scandal broke.

▪ Moving south, Bell bleeds into Cudahy. In 2013, a former mayor, city councilman and city manager were all convicted for taking bribes from a man who wanted to open a medical marijuana dispensary in town. The case exposed widespread graft, fixed elections and drug use at City Hall.

▪ South Gate anchors the district. The former treasurer and mayor, who once called himself “the King of South Gate,” was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison in 2006 for laundering more than $20 million from city projects. As the scheme was exposed, he and three of his allies on the City Council were recalled in a 2003 election that garnered national attention – and ended with the ousted mayor punching a colleague in the face.

▪ Then comes Lynwood, which also buttresses the 105 freeway to the south. In 2012, two former city councilmen were convicted for illegally boosting their salaries, while the school district’s former finance officer was charged with embezzling public funds to pay for fancy meals and sports tickets. Six years prior, the former mayor was ordered to spend 16 years in federal prison for steering city contracts to a front corporation he secretly owned.

▪ Nearby southeast L.A. cities such as Huntington Park, Vernon, Commerce, Compton and Carson have also experienced corruption scandals in recent years. Brothers and former lawmakers Ron and Tom Calderon, whose family loomed large in southeast politics, are now in prison for taking bribes and laundering the money.

People are busy just trying to survive, raising their families. They assume everything is fine at city hall, until something goes wrong.

Former Assemblyman Hector De La Torre

Jorge Morales, who was elected to the South Gate City Council in 2011, remembers, on his first visit to the Capitol as an aide to a local lawmaker more than a decade ago, the reaction when he mentioned where he was from: “Oh, that corrupt city.”

“I got embarrassed. I had never felt embarrassed like that for my community,” he recalled. On his phone, he displayed an internet map of L.A. stereotypes that slaps the words “severe pollution and corrupt city councils” over the southeast. “That’s the kind of stuff that lit a fire in me.”

Founded mainly as middle-class suburbs in the early 20th century, the cities that crowd southeastern Los Angeles County saw demographic shifts in the ’80s, as manufacturing jobs that sustained them disappeared and an influx of Latino immigrants moved in.

Civic organizations, from philanthropic clubs to local newspapers, shriveled. Residents were too busy, too poor, too new to the country to worry about what their city councils were doing. The median household income in Rendon’s district is now about $48,000, according to the American Community Survey, while more than a fifth of those living in the area are not U.S. citizens.

“There is a passivity among the residents,” said former Assemblyman Hector De La Torre, who was on the South Gate City Council during its turmoil and then served in the Legislature from 2004 to 2010. “People are busy just trying to survive, raising their families. They assume everything is fine at city hall, until something goes wrong.”

Voting rates are among the lowest in California. Last November, fewer ballots were cast in Rendon’s race than in 71 of the 78 Assembly districts with competitive runoffs. Turnout for the presidential election was more than 10 percentage points below the statewide average.

Anemic participation allows a small subset of the community to have an outsized influence of its politics. When Los Angeles County went to the polls in March for municipal elections, 1,913 people – less than 15 percent of those registered – voted in Bell, where two City Council members were re-elected. That’s twice as many as participated in the 2003 election to approve the bond residents are still paying off.

8,776 Votes cast for Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon in his first primary in 2012

Public meetings, like city council sessions, are sparsely attended. Rendon said he doesn’t like to talk about the first district event he hosted, in Cudahy, after he was elected in 2012: “Literally nobody showed up. There were zero.”

Combined with scant media presence in the region, little holds local government accountable. The vacuum has enabled miniature political fiefdoms to flourish over the years, where opponents are pressured to fall in line or perish.

“If you’re sneaky enough and crooked enough to want to manipulate that system, there’s money to be had,” De La Torre said, though these are poor communities that can least afford it. “City government is an easy mark.”

When he ran for re-election in 2001, news surfaced that a fellow councilman, also on the ballot, had been sued for support for an out-of-wedlock child in Texas. Soon, De La Torre said, anonymous mailers began showing up in mailboxes accusing him and other challengers of the same thing. One showed a photo of his fabricated daughter, “Little Irma,” and a fake court order.

“Everyone was a deadbeat dad that cycle,” De La Torre said. “As they’re challenged, they just accuse everybody of everything. If everybody’s a crook, then nobody’s a crook.”

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, who represents a district neighboring Rendon’s that includes Commerce, moved home to Bell Gardens eight years ago to help take care of family. She attended her first City Council meeting to inquire about getting bags for dog poop in the park and was taken aback by how council members would target members of the public who challenged them.

“They were really indignant. They would be at the dais and start to shame them publicly about personal allegations, even if they weren’t true,” she said.

Unhappy with city services, Garcia started requesting records on the contract for trash collection, and council salaries and car allowances, hoping to figure out where money was going. That’s when code enforcement began showing up at her house week after week, she said. Garcia often spent the night at her sister’s apartment, which had air conditioning, she said, and a rumor circulated that she was a lesbian.

“The message to people is, ‘Don’t get engaged. Don’t get involved,’ ” she said.

Morales said many residents, who have moved from countries in Latin American where politics is entirely transactional and corruption is rampant, expect it, though it only drives them further away: “People innately don’t trust government.”

The message to people is, ‘Don’t get engaged. Don’t get involved.’

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia

The upheaval of the past decade has nevertheless cleared the way for fresh voices in municipal government around the region. Many are relatively young college graduates who express a desire to return to the communities that shaped them and give back.

Few, if any, are more optimistic about the possibilities than Cristian Markovich, who joined the Cudahy City Council in 2013 when he was 27. Beyond repairing the damage caused by prior mismanagement, he wants to push his city in a new direction.

“The scandal is probably the best thing that ever happened to the city,” he said, “because we were able to get a new generation of leadership on the council but also have a populace that is involved.”

Markovich maintains an active presence on social media and forwards calls from his office line straight to his cellphone, challenging residents to “hold us accountable.” He helped start a quarterly city magazine to provide the “broccoli of government in a more manageable way.”

He’s also excited about the new city logo – a bold, modern font followed by a bear walking forward – which he hopes will attract the attention of businesses. There is discussion of entering California’s burgeoning marijuana “gold rush” despite the potentially unflattering reference to the city’s past.

Elsewhere, Bell is streaming its City Council meetings online for residents and providing headsets for attendees who need the discussions translated into Spanish. South Gate helped create neighborhood watch groups throughout the city and started offering free classes to help people apply for citizenship. A collaborative plan between 10 cities and unincorporated areas seeks to attract more nonprofit services to the region.

The scandal is probably the best thing that ever happened to the city because we were able to get a new generation of leadership on the council but also have a populace that is involved.

Cudahy City Councilman Cristian Markovich

From Sacramento, Garcia, who got her start in politics as an activist during the Bell scandal, has proposed political ethics reforms. Following the Calderon indictment in 2014, she wrote legislation, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, that banned fundraisers at lobbyists’ homes, prevented the use of campaign funds to pay election fines and required local governments to post salary information online.

Rendon’s role has shifted with his speakership. Though he previously authored laws to clean up the troubled mutual water companies that dot his district and revitalize the lower portion of the Los Angeles River that runs through it, he no longer carries legislation.

He acts now more like an elder statesmen for the southeast, promoting “government 101,” as he calls it, and setting up “democratic institutions in the district that are empowered to do it themselves.” He is particularly passionate about creating new parks and open space in Los Angeles County’s most densely populated cities, where industrial plants still line the concrete river bank.

But Rendon wonders when the “bright young council members” that excite him will burn out on cleaning up the messes their predecessors left behind.

Al Rios, a longtime South Gate resident and community college professor who was elected to the City Council in March, worries about the “temptation” for young people who may see collusion with local business interests as their best chance of success in life.

“If you’ve never had that opportunity and all of a sudden someone puts money there …” he said. “You’ve got to be careful.”

Maywood could be the next to blow.

A state audit released last October criticized wasteful spending, questionable hiring practices, repeated violations of state open-meeting laws and weak administrative controls that have put the city back into precarious financial condition. It’s facing a $15 million debt worth its twice its annual operating costs, with no plan to pay for it.

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff