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Huntington Park tow operator charged with trying to bribe elected official

An owner of a Huntington Park tow truck company was indicted Friday on charges he tried to bribe one of the city’s elected officials and then lied to FBI agents.

A federal grand jury handed up the indictment against Sukhbir Singh following an investigation that relied heavily on secret recordings the city official made while working as an informant for the FBI.

Prosecutors, however, dropped their case against Singh's business partner, Jimmy Sandhu, who had also been accused of bribery when the case was filed late last year.

Singh allegedly offered to make and funnel campaign contributions to a member of Huntington Park's city council in exchange for the councilman's support in hiking the company's towing fees.

He is also charged with lying to FBI agents during an interview in which he allegedly denied ever speaking to the councilman about the fee increase, according to the indictment.

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Singh's attorney, Dan Shallman, responded angrily to the decision to pursue charges.

“This is a huge government overreach," Shallman said. "The government is mistakenly seeking to criminalize lawful, constitutionally protected small-dollar campaign contributions, the kind that happen every day in America. Mr. Singh has been unfairly targeted and we look forward to proving his innocence in court.”

The allegations are the latest to come out of a group of small, largely industrial and poor cities just south of Los Angeles, where low civic engagement by residents and political volatility have given rise to corruption and political deceit.

With elections in the heavily immigrant, mostly Latino cities often decided by a small fraction of voters, special interests such as trash haulers or tow truck operators have tried to exploit the turmoil to sway votes in their favor.

Most recently in 2012, city leaders in neighboring Cudahy were charged with accepting bribes in exchange for allowing a marijuana dispensary to open, court documents show. And, in 2010, elected officials and administrators in the city of Bell drew national attention for illegally inflating their salaries.

Officials in Compton, Lynwood, and several other of the area's cities also have been charged with or convicted of crimes such as election fraud and public corruption since 2000.

In the current case, the FBI opened its investigation into H.P. Automotive and Tow Service Inc. in the summer of 2013 shortly after City Councilman Valentin Amezquita helped defeat a measure that would have increased fees the company charged to tow and store vehicles impounded by Huntington Park police.

Details of the investigation are contained in an affidavit written by the lead FBI agent in the investigation. In it, the agent does not name Amezquita. The Times identified him as the informant through City Council voting records.

Over the next few months, Amezquita had several meetings and conversations with Singh, who was sometimes accompanied by Sandhu. Each time, the councilman wore recording equipment while FBI agents hid nearby.

At one meeting, Amezquita talked with Singh and Sandhu at their tow yard, according to the affadavit. They complained about their contract with the city that forbade them from raising rates on their own and told the councilman that if he helped them, they could return the favor, the court filings allege.

“If you have any debts after the election, we can help you to take care of that,” Singh allegedly said to Amezquita, referring to the official's reelection campaign.

To avoid raising suspicion, Singh and Sandhu said, they would raise money from friends, according to the FBI agent's affidavit.

“This way it doesn't look like you are doing a favor for H.P. Tow, you know, so it will keep us out of the loop,” Singh is quoted as saying.

It is not clear how Amezquita came to be an informant.

In all, the FBI agent alleged in the affadavit, the councilman received checks totaling $2,650, although banks refused to cash a few checks totaling $800 for various reasons, including one that bounced. Whenever the councilman received checks from the men he cashed them with the FBI agent, who then took the cash into evidence.

Ultimately, in January 2014, the council voted again and approved the higher fees with two other council members who had previously opposed the motion supporting it. Amezquita was absent from the meeting.

Shallman rebuffed the idea that Singh, 39, had been trying to buy the councilman's vote, saying it was Amezquita who suggested and kept pursuing the idea of a quid pro quo. The case, he said, amounted to "an unsuccesful attempt by the government to entrap" Singh.

For decades, the company, known as H.P. Tow, has contracted with Huntington Park, city officials said. Singh and Sandhu have owned the company since 2001, the affidavit showed. 

Such city contracts traditionally have been coveted by tow companies as they often provide a steady flow of business and allow them to charge the city and car owners an array of fees, including daily storage fees while owners try to get their vehicles released from police custody.

In recent years, however, tow operators have been squeezed by local and state laws that restrict when police can impound cars driven by unlicensed drivers.

Since news of the investigation into H.P. Tow became public, at least four agencies have either dropped or suspended their contracts with the company. 

joel.rubin@latimes.com

Find me on Twitter: @joelrubin

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