Councilman Led 2 Lives During Private Turmoil : San Fernando: Daniel Acuna’s financial and personal problems have led some to question his ethics and suitability to serve the city.
Widely viewed about town as a congenial civil servant, San Fernando City Councilman Daniel Acuna won election to his second term of office eight months ago. His colleagues say he is an easygoing, confident lawmaker. His constituents know him as the longtime mailman who shakes hands and is eager to listen.
But Acuna’s public appearance belies a history of damaging legal and financial problems that have turned his life topsy-turvy and, by his own admission, pushed him into deeds he regrets.
He failed to repay loans from several trusting constituents until they threatened to expose him.
More than $250,000 in debt, he declared bankruptcy in 1987 and since then has defaulted on a $6,000 bank loan.
He resigned his 20-year job as a postman when confronted with evidence that he failed to deliver a sack of mail.
He lost his house and that of his parents to foreclosure.
At least one transaction involving $300 in campaign funds appears to be in violation of state law.
He writes checks on an account in the name of the San Fernando Civic Action Committee, a non-existent organization.
“I admit I have made some mistakes and that there are things that have happened that I am not proud of,” the 50-year-old Acuna said in an interview last week. He said his troubles are “strictly personal matters” rooted in a painful 1987 divorce and a humiliating bankruptcy.
Several people who lent him money said at first the amiable politician, who served as mayor in 1989, befriended them. Acuna, they said, would invite them out to lunch or dinner. Or he would telephone to chitchat about civic affairs. Then he would ask to borrow money, saying he had run into tough times.
“I trusted him. I thought ‘Who better to lend money to than a mayor?’ ” said Mary Morley, 74, who lent him $2,000 in June. She said Acuna made good on a handwritten promissory note a month late, hours before a City Council meeting in which she and her 78-year-old husband had threatened to confront him in public.
Although Acuna’s woes appear to be largely confined to personal accounts, his critics and some council colleagues say his handling of them calls into question his ethics as a public official and suitability to serve the city.
In particular, the loan from the Morleys and one of $2,000 from another elderly San Fernando resident who died last summer have upset some past campaign supporters and several colleagues.
“I look at this as a breach of ethical trust,” Councilman Doude Wysbeek said. “If you burn a bank, that is one thing. But when you approach people as a councilman and ask them for money, that is a different issue. I don’t think that is proper.”
“As a councilperson you walk a thin line,” Mayor James B. Hansen said. “You are supposed to be above even things that could be acceptable if you were not in office. . . . Danny has problems and in some cases has acted imprudently.”
The Los Angeles County district attorney’s office and the state Fair Political Practices Commission said last week that reviews of Acuna’s actions are under way to determine whether a criminal investigation is warranted. The agencies would not release details about the nature of the reviews.
Acuna said he is the target of a campaign to discredit his reputation led by a longtime town activist, Mary Jane Tuomy, who is bitter because she did not win his vote to be appointed to a vacant council seat.
“This isn’t about political performance or leadership,” Acuna said. “This is a personal vendetta initiated by someone who is very bitter and has decided to publicly embarrass me.
“If we were talking about misuse of city funds, inefficiency, then certainly the questions would be valid. . . . I never, ever, would use my position as a council member for anything that was not connected to public business.”
Tuomy, who angrily called on Acuna to make good on his debts during an October council meeting, denied that she is leading a personal campaign against him.
“I just want City Council members who are honest neighbors,” she said.
San Fernando is a 2.4-square-mile town where residents routinely call their council members at home to discuss city issues and council candidates make campaign visits to voters. Acuna’s financial mistakes have long been the topic of whispered conversations.
Some council members said they have long been aware of his divorce and the bankruptcy but shied away from probing his personal affairs. Former City Administrator Donald E. Penman recalled receiving periodic phone calls at City Hall from angry creditors. He said he told them their complaints were private matters. Some residents said they were surprised when Acuna suddenly stopped delivering their mail but were satisfied when he told them he had tired of the job after 20 years.
“It’s almost like he had two personalities,” Penman said.
“I guess I was” living two lives, he said. “One gave me a solid foundation, solid ground to stand on. The other, when I say it was a nightmare, believe me it was a nightmare.” He declined to discuss details, saying that he and his family have “been through enough pain.”
He said after the bankruptcy, divorce and loss of his job, he borrowed money “to survive” and was so overwhelmed with personal problems that he was not thinking about public perceptions.
Where did the money go?
“If I knew that we wouldn’t be here today would we?” he responded.
He was running for reelection in the midst of his personal turmoil.
Acuna was elected in April, 1986, by voters who knew him as the 20-year town mailman. He lived in a modest house and drove an Oldsmobile. He had served on the Planning Commission and promised to work to revitalize the ailing business district.
He said he sought the job because “it gave me the opportunity to focus on something positive. It was the only bright spot in my life. The only reason to get up in the morning.”
In February, 1987, he filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, a liquidation of assets in federal court in which the applicant is released from most debts. Court documents show that Acuna owed $254,558 to creditors including banks and department stores. Four loans totaling about $164,000 were secured by deeds of trust to two houses he owned, his and that of his parents.
The debts against the houses were not forgiven by the court. The federal judge approved a foreclosure sale on both properties, records show.
In a dispute over the ownership of the houses, the parents sued their son in civil court. The lawsuit was later settled out of court.
For a time he was officially wanted by the law. Although Acuna was released in bankruptcy court from a $12,800 loan from the Santa Clarita National Bank, the bank had filed a 1986 civil lawsuit against him to recover the money, records show.
When Acuna failed to appear in San Fernando Superior Court for a hearing on the default, a civil warrant was issued for his arrest on Feb. 19, 1987, the first year of his election to office. Such civil warrants are handled by the county marshal and are typically served by mail. The warrant was canceled by the court in August, 1987.
When told about the arrest warrant last week, Acuna said, “What?”
He said he did not know about it and could not remember why he failed to show up for court proceedings.
“Emotionally, I was under a great deal of pressure. God, I wish I could have sat back and made clear decisions. When you see everything going downhill, I think it is pretty difficult to be someone who can suddenly get all this under control.”
In July, 1988, Acuna resigned from his job as a postal carrier after a sack of undelivered mail was found in his car, said Postal Inspector Donald Obritsch. In an internal Postal Service investigation, Acuna was accused of unlawfully delaying U.S. mail.
“He confessed to unlawfully delaying all classes of mail, including 138 pieces,” said Obritsch. “His official file indicates that he resigned under investigation, pending removal.”
Although such a charge could be prosecuted as a felony in federal court, Obritsch said first offenses of this kind are typically handled internally by the agency.
When asked about the circumstances of his departure from the Postal Service, Acuna said he left because “I was burned out.”
Although Bankruptcy Court legally eliminated his debts, court records show that Acuna recently defaulted on three loans. The largest was for $5,997 from the Bank of Granada Hills, which sought a court judgment to recover the money in March, records show. A bank official said the terms of the loan are confidential.
In addition, Kenneth Levitt, a former jewelry shop owner, sought a $279 judgment against Acuna in 1988.
In June, Beverly Sucich of Van Nuys, a former Postal Service colleague of Acuna’s, was granted a court judgment for $2,000 against him for failure to pay back half of a $4,000 personal loan from 1982.
“When he didn’t show up for the court hearing, I was shocked,” she said. “He is a councilman. I thought he of all people would show up. The fact that he had worked for the post office and he was so friendly made me have a lot of trust in him.”
Acuna said he didn’t attend the hearing “because I didn’t have the money to pay her.”
According to Howard Barmezel, Acuna’s former landlord, the councilman also did not pay his rent in 1988.
“He owes me about $5,600,” Barmezel said. “I let him slide because he was a city councilman and I didn’t want to make any problems for him. . . . He seemed so nice, the all-American boy. I saw his picture in the papers. I kept thinking he would pay me.”
After seven months, Barmezel said, he tacked an eviction notice to Acuna’s door and the councilman moved. Acuna now lives in an apartment complex on Harding Street.
For the last several years, Acuna said, he has been paying his personal bills with checks drawn from an account in the name of the San Fernando Civic Action Committee. He used this account in September to pay the Morleys a $200 loan installment.
Over a three-day period last week he gave three conflicting explanations about the nature of the account.
First, he said he opened the account because he intended to start an organization that “was going to be something, well the name says exactly what it is going to be. . . . I had an idea to put together some type of nonprofit organization. There was no political purpose to it.” He said the organization “never got off the ground” but he has kept the account active for personal business.
In an interview a day later, he said that he opened the account because he wanted to start a group that would “get involved in addressing some issues involving kids.” The money would be used “to make contributions to various community organizations.”
He recalled that he collected contributions for the non-existent group, but could not recall who gave him money or how much was collected. He said the donations were dispersed to a youth group but could not recall the name of the group. He said he would call back after researching his records.
On Friday, Acuna said he had not yet found records of the donations but said he would continue looking. He said that the organization “did start out being a PAC,” a political action committee, which under state law must be registered with the secretary of state.
“It started out with a very small amount of money,” he said. “Later I used it as my personal account.”
The secretary of state has no record of a campaign committee named the San Fernando Civic Action Committee. Neither does the state’s Registry of Charitable Trusts, the agency with issues permits to collect donations for nonprofit organizations.
An official with Trans World Bank, where the account is located, said bank policy prohibited him from discussing the nature of checking accounts.
Last March, Acuna was involved in a questionable transaction involving $300 in campaign funds.
Former City Councilman Mike Majers, owner of Majers’ Liquor in San Fernando, said Acuna cashed a check written to him from a PAC controlled by Jess Margarito, a former town councilman. Campaign statements show that Margarito listed the check as a political contribution to Acuna’s 1990 reelection campaign.
A provision in the state’s Political Reform Act requires that contributions to a political candidate must be deposited into a campaign account. Any campaign expenditures of more than $100 must be made “by written instrument.”
Acuna confirmed that he cashed the check and said he spent the money mainly on food for campaign workers. He could not recall whether the bills exceeded $100.
Despite his lingering financial troubles, Acuna said that he is beginning to find stability in his life. He has recently begun working as a real estate agent for Realty World--Hill & Romero Properties in Sepulveda. In April, he was the top vote-getter in an election for three council seats.
He said he hopes San Fernando residents will “give me a second chance.”
“The people are the ones who will determine how long I will serve,” he said. Then, in a tearful voice and rubbing his eyes, he said: “I’m afraid the people will not want me to serve them anymore. If that happens it will hurt. It is the one thing I am proudest of.”