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3 Questioned on Dinner Hosted by Montejano : Investigation: The county grand jury has reportedly been trying to determine if the lawyer/lobbyist has ever tried to improperly influence city officials. He denies any improprieties.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

District attorney’s investigators have questioned three civic leaders about what they discussed or overheard at a private dinner hosted last year by Santa Ana lawyer Rodolfo Montejano, who is the focus of a grand jury inquiry.

The gathering took place on the eve of a rock concert at Centennial Regional Park sponsored by a nonprofit organization led by Montejano and co-promoted by one of his clients.

At the time, city officials say, Mayor Daniel H. Young was about to propose banning such private uses of public facilities because of controversy stirred by a gay pride festival.

It is not known why authorities have questioned participants at the dinner, which Montejano, a prominent lobbyist and a trustee of Rancho Santiago Community College, characterized as a purely social affair. But the Orange County Grand Jury has reportedly been trying to determine if Montejano has ever tried to improperly influence officials at City Hall. Prosecutors have declined to comment about grand jury proceedings as a matter of policy.

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Montejano, who strongly denies any impropriety, confirmed this week that he and his wife, Linda, arranged and paid for the July 7, 1989, dinner at Antonello Ristorante in South Coast Village. He said he has no idea why investigators are showing interest.

The six guests who attended were two Santa Ana city councilmen, two prominent religious leaders, the executive director of the Pacific Symphony and a social friend of one councilman who is also a reporter for the Orange County Register.

“That is wild,” Montejano said. “This was a public restaurant and everybody knows me there. What could I do there? . . . Why on earth would anybody be interested in this dinner? It’s mind-boggling. I’m as curious as anyone else about this.”

The gathering was not unusual, Montejano said, because he and his wife frequently entertain friends and associates from the community.

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“It was a group to socialize,” Montejano said. “We talked about the world.”

Montejano said the next day’s concert in the park was probably mentioned in some conversation that evening because there was a question about whether a featured musical group would be able to perform.

But at the time of the dinner, Montejano said, he was unaware of any proposal to ban such park events in the future. He said he first learned of the mayor’s proposal in August when Young publicly announced the measure, which the council ultimately approved.

Councilmen Miguel A. Pulido Jr. and Ron May, both of whom were subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury on Sept. 17, attended the dinner but declined to comment to The Times. Each councilmen said he has been directed by prosecutors not to discuss anything that may be part of a Montejano investigation.

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Symphony executive Louis Spisto said he attended the dinner at Montejano’s invitation to discuss issues involving the orchestra. Montejano is also a member of the symphony’s governing board.

“It was a group of people getting together to talk,” said Spisto, who has been questioned by investigators. “While I was at the dinner, general things were discussed. I don’t think there was any discussion of council votes.”

Also questioned by investigators was Father Wilbur Davis, a former pastor of St. Joseph Church, which Montejano attends.

Davis, now on sabbatical in New York, said Montejano invited him to the 5:30 p.m. dinner because he had once mentioned that he wanted to meet Pulido but had never gotten the chance. Davis said Montejano and his wife gave him a ride to the restaurant.

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“They picked me up and then they picked up Miguel (Pulido) and we went to the restaurant,” Davis recalled.

Montejano’s recollection differed slightly: He said Pulido was already waiting at the restaurant with his friend, Register reporter Laura Saari.

Davis said a variety of subjects were discussed by the eight people who sat around the restaurant table--Montejano and his wife, Pulido, Saari, May, Spisto, Davis and Msgr. Jaime Soto, vicar of the Latino community for the Orange County Catholic Diocese.

“It was a very animated dinner,” Davis said. “It was like watching tennis. Everybody was talking and there was a lot of interaction going back and forth.”

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Soto, who arrived late at the dinner, said he has also been questioned by investigators.

“They (investigators) were wondering whether certain issues like festivals and fairs in the city came up during dinner,” Soto said. “I don’t remember hearing anything like that.”

“It was a free-wheeling event,” Soto continued. “What got my blood going was a discussion about the homeless and what the city was going to do for them.”

Saari, who also was subpoenaed to testify before the grand jury, declined to comment Wednesday about the dinner. “Sorry, I can’t talk about this,” Saari said.

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Montejano said the dinner was an intimate affair where everyone heard what everyone else was discussing and “there were no secrets. . . .

“You’re talking about the church, the orchestra and a reporter from the Register there at the dinner. The wine is flowing. Why on earth are they looking into this? That’s crazy. Someone must be paranoid.”

Montejano said he recalls that the group talked about several topics, ranging from the homeless problem in Santa Ana to the Pacific Symphony’s request for city financial help in building a practice floor. Montejano said he does not remember any one particular conversation.

“There was no one-on-one talk,” Montejano said.

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The day after the dinner, the Fiesta Americana began at Centennial Park, sponsored by the Santiago Club, a nonprofit business league co-founded by Montejano. Councilman Pulido is also among its 125 members. (Montejano, formerly club chairman and now a member of the executive board, announced this week that he is resigning because he plans to move to Indiana sometime next year.)

The high point of the two-day event was a concert featuring Los Bukis, a popular rock group touted as “the Mexican Beatles.” City records show that the concert drew about 31,000 people, with tickets selling for $20 in advance and $25 at the gate.

Santiago Club officials say money from the concert went to the promoters, who included Cruz Frias, co-owner of a ticket agency and promotion firm known as Empress Frias. Montejano acknowledged that he serves as Frias’ attorney. When asked if he received any fee from Frias stemming from the Los Bukis concert, Montejano declined to comment, citing attorney-client confidentiality.

Frias could not be reached for comment.

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Although Young did not formally propose restricting the private use of public parks until a month after the Montejano dinner, he had begun raising the prospect in public statements almost two months before the dinner. Most of his comments focused on whether the city should permit the park to be used for a gay pride festival at which protesters were expected.

Young said in an recent interview that some council members--he did not recall who or exactly when--told him that Montejano was upset with his park proposal, which the council unanimously approved.

“He (Montejano) had plans to do four or five kinds of concerts and he saw the ordinance as being a way to end them,” Young said.

Montejano said, however, that neither he nor the Santiago Club had any plans to sponsor future concerts. In fact, the Fiesta Americana stemmed from a request from city officials that the Santiago Club sponsor a summer musical event in the park.

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When Young proposed the park-restriction ordinance, Montejano said he publicly opposed it because the law seemed to unfairly shut out some events sponsored by minority groups. But Montejano said the ordinance actually helped the Santiago Club because it gave the organization exclusive rights to hold Cinco De Mayo and Mexican Independence Day events at Centennial Park.


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