Mayor Clashes With Car Dealer : Vehicle Mix-Up, Lost Money Lead to Scuffle With Guard

Times Staff Writer

On one point, Inglewood Mayor Edward Vincent and the people at Prince Pontiac agree: The whole thing is kind of strange.

Otherwise, they tell vastly different stories about a recent incident that brought Hawthorne Police speeding to Prince Pontiac on Imperial Highway, where Vincent was attempting to gain admittance after-hours in search of misplaced money.

As a result, Vincent filed a criminal complaint with Hawthorne police accusing a security guard at the dealership of assault and battery. The complaint has been referred to the Hawthorne city attorney.

Officials at Prince say they are angry with the mayor, but say they have not decided whether to take legal action of their own.

Vincent says the security guard, Arthur Chamberland, hit him on the head with a flashlight when Vincent and a friend asked to be admitted to the dealership about 10 p.m. to look for money Vincent had left in a car involved in a mix-up with another car Vincent brought for repairs.


Hand Hurt in Scuffle

The guard and his employers say the 57-year-old Chamberland struck the 54-year-old mayor because the mayor and another man tried to muscle their way into the closed dealership. A door was slammed on Chamberland’s hand in the scuffle, they say.

Vincent says he had left about $1,400 in a car at the dealership, money he had withdrawn from his credit union for car payments, along with two checks totaling about $836.

Officials at Prince say Vincent told them he was missing $5,000 and later said he had recovered $7,000, and would not explain what he was doing with that kind of cash.

The dispute and speculation in Inglewood about the amount of misplaced cash are publicity that Vincent says he can do without.

The mayor faces at least $10,000 in fines as the result of charges filed in March by the state attorney general’s office. That agency and the state Fair Political Practices Commission are investigating his use and reporting of campaign funds for travel and car repair.

The mayor has not always been open to press inquiries about his finances. But he invited reporters to a meeting last Tuesday to give his side of the dispute at the auto dealership and to talk about how public officials live in a fishbowl.

“It’s incredible,” Vincent said. “I get hit on the head, and they’re saying I’m the one who did something wrong. It’s big headlines.”

Bob Allen, manager of Prince Pontiac, responded: “The guard did what he was supposed to do. They tried to force entry. . . . I don’t care if it’s the President of the United States, he’s not allowed to come into the business at night. At that point, they both become citizens.”

The story begins with the Los Angeles Lakers beating the Detroit Pistons last summer for the NBA championship.

Vincent won two weeks use of a Pontiac Grand Prix from the mayor of Pontiac, Mich., former home of the Pistons. Vincent liked the car so much that he bought it.

And on April 7, according to Vincent and Allen, Vincent’s wife brought the Grand Prix to the dealership for service. Vincent arrived in his Cadillac about 3:30 p.m. with Roger Smith, his campaign treasurer and a fellow Los Angeles County probation officer. The mayor left the Cadillac for work on the air conditioning and left.

At this point, the stories of the antagonists diverge a bit.

Allen says Vincent walked back into the service area about 15 minutes later, got into a Grand Prix that resembled the car his wife had brought in and drove off without a word.

Vincent says that is inaccurate. He says he was told, “Your car’s over there” by an employee, who indicated an almost identical car. The mayor mistook it for his own and drove off.

At this point, the stories diverge significantly.

Allen says Vincent returned about 7:15 p.m. when he realized he had the wrong Grand Prix and exchanged it for his own. He returned in a state of agitation about 20 minutes later, saying he was missing $5,000. Allen says he and the mayor searched the Cadillac, the mayor’s Grand Prix and the other Grand Prix, and came up empty-handed.

Allen says he asked the mayor why he would leave so much cash in his car, but got no answer. The mayor left in his Cadillac, Allen says, after making it clear that he believed someone at the shop had taken the money and saying: “I’ll never see that money again.”

But the mayor denies that any search of the three cars took place early in the evening with Allen. Vincent says he came back with the wrong Grand Prix in the early evening and exchanged it for his Cadillac. He moved his Grand Prix out front so he could pick it up later.

The mayor says he was not missing $5,000, but $1,400, which he had withdrawn from his credit union, along with the two checks from the city of Inglewood, which he had misplaced with his wallet.

Searched Car

The mayor says he realized the money was missing and contacted Smith, who accompanied him back to the dealership about 10 p.m.

A search of the mayor’s Grand Prix--parked on the street--did not turn up the money, Vincent says. A security guard was visible behind the door.

“So I walk up to the guy and explain they had given me the wrong car and I had some very important business papers in the car inside,” Vincent said at the press conference. “And he says he doesn’t want to hear about it. And ‘boom,’ he hits me on the head.”

Allen and Wayne Spencer, owner of AsGuard Protection Services, say Chamberland gave them a different version. They say the mayor and Smith tried to force their way in when the guard refused them admittance. They say Chamberland’s hand was cut from being pinned in the door during the struggle.

Chamberland--described as a fine employee by Spencer--told police he hit the mayor with his flashlight when the mayor raised his fist as if to strike him. The mayor disagrees.

Enter the Hawthorne police.

An employee on the premises told Hawthorne police that the mayor did not attempt to punch Chamberland, according to the police report.

They arrived in response to a call from the guard’s wife, who reported a possible burglary at the dealership about 10:20 p.m. She had brought Chamberland his lunch shortly before the fight. Two officers found the mayor and Smith outside and the security guard inside the showroom, according to Hawthorne Police Capt. Steve Port.

At that point, Inglewood Councilman Ervin (Tony) Thomas arrived, according to the mayor, who says Thomas lives in the area and saw the commotion while driving by. Thomas could not be reached for comment.

Spencer, the security supervisor, says he went to the scene after getting an urgent call from the guard.

Animated conversation ensued, according to all concerned. Vincent was allowed to enter the showroom and retrieved something from behind the sun visor of the wrong Grand Prix.

“It was a wallet and a white envelope,’ Spencer said. “The mayor said ‘Here’s my $7,000.’ ”

Wrong again, retorts the mayor, who says he never mentioned such a high figure and doesn’t understand where it came from.

Both sides say they reached an agreement, with the help of the police, to refrain from pressing charges and to keep the incident quiet.

Each now accuses the other of breaking that agreement.

Vincent said last week that he filed the assault and battery complaint after learning that the dealership owner, Jack Prince, called the mayor’s secretary and threatened to sue the mayor.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Vincent said. “Everybody was telling me I should sue them. I was going to let it go.”

Prince said he never threatened to sue, and has not yet decided whether to take legal action.