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Downey Councilman’s Fate in Limbo After Mistrial

Times Staff Writer

The conflict-of-interest trial of Downey Councilman James S. Santangelo raised more questions than it answered about the conduct of city officials before and after the 1984 vote to expand the city’s redevelopment district along Firestone Boulevard.

Santangelo’s fate was left in limbo this week after a Municipal Court jury deadlocked 11 to 1 in favor of conviction and a judge declared a mistrial.

The holdout juror, who asked that he not be identified, said he was not convinced Santangelo stood to benefit from the expansion any more than the general public, a requirement for conviction.

Deputy Dist. Atty. Herbert Lapin said a retrial on the misdemeanor conflict-of-interest charge is likely, but the district attorney’s office has until March 7 to decide. If convicted, Santangelo could face six months in jail and a $10,000 fine. He could also be barred from holding public office for four years.

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Testimony About Events

During the trial, city officials and Downey residents gave highly contradictory testimony about key events leading up to the disputed July, 1984, vote.

In addition, testimony revealed a secret meeting in which Councilwoman Diane P. Boggs allegedly offered to change her vote opposing the redevelopment expansion so the city could circumvent a costly lawsuit challenging Santangelo’s right to vote. The suit, filed by a group of property owners called Downey CARES, led a judge to invalidate the expansion in 1985 after finding that Santangelo had a conflict of interest.

The conflicting testimony centered on whether former City Atty. Carl Newton told Santangelo he could vote to expand the redevelopment district. Santangelo, 53, who heads a Downey real estate firm, owned property in the 386-acre expansion area and in the original redevelopment district.

Santangelo testified that he informed the city attorney of his property holdings, and that Newton told him moments before the disputed vote that he could participate.

“I leaned over and I think I said, ‘Is it OK to vote?’ ” Santangelo testified. “His indication was, yes, I could vote.”

But Newton contradicted Santangelo, testifying that he did not tell the councilman he could vote to expand the redevelopment district. The former city attorney also said Santangelo never told him he owned property in the redevelopment areas.

“Had I been aware of all of the facts . . . I would have advised him not to participate in the July 10 (1984) voting,” Newton testified.

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The area that included Santangelo’s property was placed in the expansion zone because it lacked sufficient water flow for firefighting and because of poor traffic circulation, according to testimony. Property tax revenue generated by a redevelopment district often is used to make public improvements to remedy such problems. All told, the councilman’s properties were worth from $1.2 million to $1.5 million, Santangelo testified during the trial.

The defense called as witnesses three Downey residents who partially corroborated Santangelo’s testimony that he conferred with Newton.

The prosecution countered with testimony from Councilmen Robert G. Cormack and Randall R. Barb, who said they did not see or hear Santangelo lean over and ask Newton for advice before they voted on the 1984 expansion.

Former Councilman Bob Davila, who was sitting between Santangelo and Newton on the council dais at the time of the vote, did not testify. Lapin said he decided not to call Davila after the former councilman told him his memory of the events was foggy. The fifth council member, Boggs, testified only as a character witness for Santangelo and was not asked whether the councilman sought advice from Newton.

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To further back the contention that Santangelo was acting on bad advice, defense attorney Leo Newton (no relation to Carl Newton) questioned the councilman about a closed meeting that took place in the months after the expansion vote. Santangelo said he did not remember the date of the meeting, but said it took place after Downey CARES filed suit.

Santangelo testified that the council discussed with Carl Newton whether Santangelo should withdraw his vote to approve the expansion, which passed 3 to 2. He also testified that Boggs agreed to change her vote so Santangelo could abstain and the expansion would still be approved by a 3-1 margin.

But, Santangelo said, Newton blocked the scheme, telling the council that Santangelo did not have a conflict of interest.

“Mrs. Boggs said that at that point she would be for redevelopment and we were advised we didn’t have to (change the vote),” he said.

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In his cross-examination of Santangelo, Lapin painted Santangelo and the other council members as participants in “back-room bargaining” that may have violated California law requiring public officials to openly debate most governmental issues.

Santangelo said Wednesday that he thought it was proper for the council to use a closed session to discuss withdrawing his vote to deal with pending litigation. Under state law, council discussion with an attorney concerning pending litigation may take place in closed session. The councilman said he would not have objected to withdrawing his vote, and having Boggs change her’s, to avoid a lawsuit.

“If that would be the way to solve an impending problem, that would be the way to do it as long as you did it in public,” he said.

The defense tried to question the former city attorney about the closed-door meeting, but Newton declined to answer citing attorney-client privilege.

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Boggs was not asked to testify about the meeting. In an interview this week, she declined to comment on the closed session. But given a hypothetical scenario that paralleled the meeting described by Santangelo, Boggs said she would stand by her vote: “Either I’m voting right or I’m not. It’s not negotiable in that respect.”

After the mistrial, the support of Santangelo by a council majority appeared to be holding.

Last December, Barb called for Santangelo’s resignation from the council, and then from the Downey Redevelopment Commission to avoid future conflicts of interest. Council members double as redevelopment commissioners to decide most redevelopment issues.

Barb also asked the council to stop paying for Santangelo’s legal defense, an expense it approved in 1986. The city had spent $20,072 as of May 31, 1987, the last time a bill from Santangelo’s lawyers was received, said Lee Powell, director of administrative services.

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Request Tabled

A council majority composed of Boggs, Cormack and Councilman Roy L. Paul tabled the request without comment last month. The council has no power to force Santangelo’s resignation and such a call would have been advisory.

A survey of the council members indicated no desire to immediately resurrect the issues.

“I guess there weren’t any exceptions to our commitment to pay his costs, so I don’t see how you can morally cut it off at this time,” Cormack said this week. “However, I think that if it were me in Mr. Santangelo’s shoes, for the well-being of my family and the extra costs to the taxpayers, I’d personally see if there were some way if the court could bring it to an end.”

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Santangelo has steadfastly maintained that he is innocent and said this week he will go through another trial if necessary. But the mistrial has cast a shadow over his planned bid for reelection.

Elected to the City Council in June 1984, Santangelo’s term expires this June. He said last month that he was committed to seeking reelection in the face of what he called unfair attacks on his character. But Santangelo said he will now reconsider his decision. The filing deadline for candidates is March 11.

“If my supporters still believe in me and I’m sure they do, we have to sit down and talk about this,” he said. “I don’t want to take a whole bunch of supporters into a race I can’t win.”


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