Buoyed by concern from residents living near a proposed drilling site, Albert Robles staked his position as councilman against new oil drilling in Carson. Now the district attorney's office is investigating whether he should have even been on the council.
Prosecutors are looking at whether Robles broke the law by serving as both a councilman and a longtime elected member of a water board, a potential conflict of interest if the dual positions are found to be "incompatible offices," said Jane Robison, a district attorney's office spokeswoman.
Last month, prosecutors sent public records requests to the city of Carson for information related to its dealings with several water entities.
The 45-year-old Robles said he believes complaints to prosecutors were related to oil interests, including Occidental Petroleum — which has proposed drilling more than 200 wells near Cal State Dominguez Hills. In March, he voted with four other council members to enact a 45-day moratorium against drilling.
In late April, when the council was set to vote on whether to extend the moratorium, the looming decision captured the attention of environmentalists and labor unions statewide, and unlike previous meetings, supporters of the drilling project — many of them union members — showed up in force.
Powerful union leader Maria Elena Durazo of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor urged the council to vote against the ban, saying it would hurt jobs. Gov. Jerry Brown called the city's mayor before the vote to discuss the moratorium at length.
The council deadlocked on extending the moratorium, with Robles voting to extend the ban. Much of the controversy has centered on whether Occidental would use hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Although company officials initially said they might use the technique to extract oil, they have since said they would not.
The project had also drawn the ire of residents in the Carousel housing tract in the southern part of Carson, where contamination from a former Shell Oil tank farm has prompted officials to warn against eating fruit grown in the soil.
"Oxy does not know anything about the district attorney's investigation into Mr. Robles," an Occidental Petroleum representative said in a statement. "Oxy is solely focused on completing a good project in Carson. The project has broad community support, which was demonstrated when more than 700 people showed up at a public hearing opposing a drilling moratorium last week."
In the past, politicians faced with allegations that they have held incompatible offices have responded differently.
Former Bell Councilman George Cole gave up his seat on the Central Basin Municipal Water District in order to avoid prosecution. In another case, Maywood Councilman Sergio Calderon, who was on the replenishment board like Robles, gave up his council seat after his lawyer urged him to resign to avoid a conflict-of-interest lawsuit by prosecutors. Calderon later asked for his council seat back, but was rebuffed. The lawyer who urged the risky gambit? Albert Robles.
Now Robles said he has no plan to drop either of his elected positions.
"I will not be bullied," Robles said. "If the D.A. wants to remove me or Occidental Petroleum wants to remove me, let them try. My faith rests with the voters and if the voters want to remove me, they will."
Robles insists that there is no conflict between his two public offices, saying that the replenishment board does not sell water to Carson and that the city and water district don't do business together. He said that he was aware of some complaints about his two positions as long as a year ago and that in the fall prosecutors sent someone to Water Replenishment District headquarters in Lakewood.
There is no prohibition against a politician having two public offices. Robles makes $30,500, excluding benefits, as a Carson councilman and an additional $38,000 for his work at the replenishment district, according to tax records.
But Jessica Levinson, a Loyola law professor who specializes in government ethics, said conflict of interest laws involving so-called incompatible offices are designed to keep politicians from "serving two masters." Experts say investigators don't have to prove that a conflict of interest happened, only that it could.
"It's meant to ensure that you serve your constituents and don't have divided duties and loyalties and agendas," Levinson said.
In the last month, several public records requests have been sent to the city of Carson and the replenishment district seeking information on Robles, including one from an entity called Public Record Strategies with an address at a Washington, D.C., UPS store. A person affiliated with Public Record Strategies said she could not divulge on whose behalf the company was seeking the information.
Robles is no stranger to controversy. He has sparred with former L.A. County District Atty. Steve Cooley, whose office prosecuted him unsuccessfully. Robles also ran in 2008 to be the top prosecutor against Cooley — unsuccessfully. He got his nickname of "Little Al" because of his friendship with a former South Gate councilman with the same name, Albert T. Robles, who ended up being sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for corruption.
Robles, the lawyer and Carson councilman, even represented the other Robles at his sentencing.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times