As new groups scramble to consolidate power and patronage in Los Angeles County's small cities, the pushing and shoving usually takes place underneath public radar.
One exception involves a pair of lawyers who, adversaries complain, have not exactly been using the good government handbook.
The lawyers, Stanford-educated J. Arnoldo Beltran and Harvard-trained H. Francisco Leal, have played power politics in pursuit of lucrative municipal attorney contracts long held by white-dominated law firms, and now also sought by competing Latinos, in cities with new or changing Latino majorities in southeast Los Angeles County and the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys.
They have used the specter of recall campaigns as a threat against newly elected Latino officials if those officials do not vote to give them contracts, the officials or their associates charged in interviews with The Times. In one instance, a political ally of the lawyers, state Sen. Richard Polanco, allegedly did the threatening for them.
The lawyers and Polanco deny the charges.
There is nothing new about mixing recall politics and the pursuit of city attorney jobs, which are awarded in small cities by majorities of five-member city councils. In Los Angeles County's largest cities, city attorneys are elected.
Edward Dilkes, a veteran white municipal lawyer, recalled that in the 1970s, he was part of a generation of lawyers allied with tax conservatives and environmentalists who seized political power largely at the expense of older, pro-development whites who had settled in Southern California after World War II. Dilkes said he got the city attorney's job in Rosemead after advising such allies on how to run a recall there.
But the allegations lodged against Beltran, Leal and Polanco go beyond merely advising. They involve a form of coercion--specifically, promising to call off recalls in return for contracts.
Because of the rifts they have created, the allegations are significant for another reason: They provide an unusual opportunity to glimpse normally secretive operations of the political machine Polanco is building as it continues to gain and keep footholds in Los Angeles County's local governments.
Polanco, a Democrat who represents northeast Los Angeles in the state Senate, has become known as the leading architect of Latino empowerment in California largely through his successes in sponsoring Latino Democratic candidates for the state Legislature. But he has also dabbled in local politics. He acknowledges that he has possible county supervisorial ambitions when he is termed out of the Legislature in 2002.
As his political allies, lawyers Beltran and Leal have enjoyed considerable success in recent years. They have represented, at various times, eight Los Angeles County cities with contracts each worth hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. They also became lobbyists in Sacramento for some of the same cities, earning tens of thousands of dollars more.
But as participants in a volatile business where job security is only as solid as a three-member city council majority, they also experienced their share of defeats--losing some of these same contracts to other lawyers in a hotly competitive field.
This past summer, Beltran and Leal broke up their partnership, dividing the cities that their firm represented in a move that Leal attributed to stylistic and personality differences. Leal is smoother, thinner, and at 39, 10 years younger than Beltran. He is the diplomat. Beltran is more plain-spoken and direct.
The allegations of coercion lodged against them and Polanco involve only three cities--Bell Gardens, which Beltran still represents; the city of Commerce, which Leal's breakaway firm still represents; and Lynwood, from which the Beltran-Leal firm was fired.
In Bell Gardens, two council members facing recalls said that Beltran and Leal told them early this year that the recalls could stop if the law firm were retained.
Councilman Joaquin Penilla said Leal told him: "What does it take for me to get you not to fire us? What does it take? You want us to stop the recall tomorrow? We'll do it."
"Beltran [then said], 'I have a lot of powerful friends, and they'll be very disappointed if we get fired,' " Penilla said.
Another of the council members, Salvador Rios, said that Beltran talked to him too.
"He says he can do anything to keep us in office, but don't fire [him]," Rios said. "And I said, 'What could you do?' And he said, 'I could stop the recall just for you.' "
Beltran and Leal deny making the statements.
In Commerce, a different form of pressure was applied.
Leal admits he launched a retaliatory campaign to punish the councilman he held most responsible for firing him by targeting the councilman's half-brother, a school board member, for electoral defeat. Leal said he now regrets that move, which he attributes to letting his anger and hurt get the better of him.
He also wrote a petition to recall the councilman.
Then something strange happened.
Facing recall, the councilman, Hugo Argumedo, suddenly reversed himself and voted to rehire Leal.
Exactly what persuaded Argumedo to change his mind remains unclear since Argumedo would not explain himself for this article. But someone who knows him said Argumedo explained to him that he acted under duress, after he was told that the lawyers would dump big money into the recall campaign against him unless he changed his mind.
Leal and Beltran deny making any such threats.
In Lynwood, Polanco himself became involved.
A council member, Ricardo Sanchez, said that Polanco, the state Senate majority leader, told him that a recall attempt against Sanchez could be stopped if the firm were rehired.
Sanchez had broken away from Lynwood's first-ever Latino City Council majority, which had hired the firm, and formed a new majority with two black council members, which had fired Leal and Beltran.
Sanchez said Polanco told him, "We should work things out. The recall could die if we allowed these people to come back."
Sanchez said Polanco referred to Leal in their conversations as "his boy."
Polanco, whose public demeanor is perennially buttoned down, denied threatening Sanchez and denied referring to Leal as his "boy." "I don't talk like that," the senator said.
He said he met with Sanchez and other members of the Latino bloc, at Sanchez's request, to see if he could repair a breach between Sanchez and Leal and patch up the fractured Latino majority.
"I sit down and I tell them . . . 'Look, you guys are just getting started. You've got to learn to work together,' " Polanco said.
The senator said he has no financial ties to Beltran and Leal, other than that they have made campaign contributions to him, and merely supports them as qualified lawyers in a field that "has been closed to ethnic minority law firms."
Beltran and Leal's reputed involvement in recalls, and a perception that they are closely tied to Polanco, have contributed to an atmosphere of fear even in cities where there were no recalls. Some council members who are already known as dissidents were cautious about what they would say. "I don't feel comfortable being quoted by name in any article regarding [them]," said one.
Bell Gardens is a 2 1/2-square-mile city of 40,000 in southeast Los Angeles County that was settled by whites fleeing the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and incorporated in 1961. Thirty years later, it became the cradle of the current Mexican American political ascension, when a Latino voting majority recalled a nearly all-white City Council.
Beltran, then a real estate lawyer active in politics, was involved in that recall effort through an organization called NEWS for America, whose "news" was that Mexican Americans no longer needed to wait and practice coalition-building with other ethnic groups since they were so numerous--N(orth), E(ast), W(est) and S(outh).
Two years after the Bell Gardens recall, its local leader, Maria Chacon, herself won election to the council, and Beltran became city attorney. Chacon put together her own three-member slate of council candidates to join her on the governing body in 1997.
Beltran backed this slate--which he knew, if successful, would contain his future employers--by asking political friends to contribute. There was nothing illegal or unusual about that. Some city attorneys or would-be city attorneys do not do it because they take a long view that contributions aimed at making friends also, unavoidably, make enemies of the friends' opponents. But Beltran's view was: "Unless and until the rules change, I'm going to help people who help me."
Shortly after the slate was elected, trouble erupted between its members and Chacon and that led to her effort to recall them.
As tensions mounted, former Bell Gardens Planning Commissioner Alfredo Martinez said that Beltran told him repeatedly that a recall was in the works against the slate, even before a petition was filed. "He said, 'These bozos don't believe we're going to recall them,' " Martinez said. Beltran denies making the remark.
Many issues were involved. One was the use of city funds to subsidize a single-family-home development to be built in part by TELACU, an acronym for The East Los Angeles Community Union. TELACU is an influential nonprofit community development corporation, containing profit-making subsidiaries, that has long been a mainstay in providing Polanco with financial and political support.
Financing for the Bell Gardens portion of TELACU's 53-house project, which extended into neighboring Commerce, was contingent on a $2-million Bell Gardens loan.
The City Council initially gave the project a green light. But Chacon's handpicked council members, David Torres, Salvador Rios and Joaquin Penilla, had second thoughts. They said they worried that the loan might not be repaid and that houses, which they said were to be sold for $150,000 or more, would prove too expensive for most Bell Gardens residents.
Beltran stepped in to try to save the deal, Rios said.
He said Beltran called him to arrange a private meeting between him, Polanco and the key developer, TELACU President David Lizarraga's son, Michael, who is TELACU's executive vice president.
Beltran denies setting up the meeting.
At the meeting, which Penilla also said he attended, Rios said Polanco pushed for the housing project, saying it would be good for the city.
Polanco, who early in his career worked for TELACU, acknowledged attending. "I was invited to give a recommendation . . . on the experience of TELACU as a housing [developer] and to share with them history about the organization . . . and I did, as I have done for others who I believe are capable and qualified and, if given the shot, will do a good job," he said.
Rios and Penilla remained unmoved, and together with Torres, voted against the project.
As a recall movement against all three gathered steam, they also moved to fire Beltran. Leal said he then stepped in to try to prevent the loss of a "million-dollar" account. "I'm the relationships guy," Leal said. "I can ask. I can plead. . . . Arnoldo [Beltran] can't."
Leal said he sought out council member Penilla to make "mostly a plea based on loyalty."
Leal, as well as Beltran, denies Penilla's account that Leal offered to call off the recall against Penilla in return for Penilla's vote.
Leal said it was absurd to imagine that he would say he could stop a recall inspired by Chacon, the most influential politician in town.
Rios, however, said that first Beltran and then Chacon herself made similar pitches to him.
Rios said Beltran told him: "I could stop the recall just for you."
Then Chacon joined their conversation and said, as Rios tells it: "If you don't fire Beltran, we can keep you in office."
Beltran denies saying he would call off a recall. But he acknowledged that he listened as Chacon said "basically, 'We want to work with you.' Obviously, the comment means, 'We don't want you out of office.' "
Chacon said: "I don't recall that at all."
Penilla and Rios, along with their ally, Torres, went ahead with their vote to fire Beltran.
Beltran responded by helping to raise money for their recall. "Some of my friends contributed," he said.
Polanco reported giving $1,000 through a campaign committee he controlled.
Saying that was his only involvement in the recall, he explained that he gave the money to help Chacon, who "has been a strong friend and supporter of all of us." By "all of us," he said he meant himself and Democratic state Sen. Martha Escutia, a lawyer whose legislative career he launched in 1992 by helping her win election to the state Assembly representing Bell Gardens and other southeast cities. He also included Democratic Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh, a former Polanco aide who became a law clerk and lobbyist for the Beltran and Leal firm, and then last year, Polanco's choice to replace Escutia in the Assembly.
Escutia's campaign records show that she, too, sent a $1,000-contribution to the Bell Gardens recall committee. She sent it to the address of the Beltran and Leal law firm in downtown Los Angeles.
The recall was successful.
The day after new City Council members were sworn in, Beltran was rehired.
The new members, who had campaigned on a pledge to approve the TELACU project, quickly did that too.
Commerce is a small industrial city six miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles that boasts that it has no local property or utility taxes. Established in 1960 when industrialists and homeowners decided they would be better off incorporating than risking annexation, the city has more than 40,000 workers but only 12,000 residents.
Leal got the Commerce city attorney job in 1994 and kept it until 1997, when City Councilman Hugo Argumedo led a move to oust him. Leal attributed their squabble to personnel matters. There were also disagreements about a multimillion-dollar project known as Rail Cycle.
Rail Cycle was to involve construction of a giant facility in Commerce to remove recyclables from 8 million pounds of garbage that would be trucked daily into the city from other towns. The remainder of the waste would be put on trains bound for a landfill in the San Bernardino County desert.
The project's partners, Waste Management Inc. and the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway Co., hired a well-connected Latino political figure, Robert Morales, a longtime aide to former state Sen. Art Torres, the current state Democratic Party chairman, as their consultant. His job was to drum up community support for the project.
With Morales' help, Rail Cycle won a conditional use permit from the City Council in late 1992. But four years later, when Argumedo was running for council on a campaign against the project, major construction had still not begun. Rail Cycle's partners cited unforeseen delays in winning approval for their desert landfill.
Citing the inaction, Argumedo asked Leal for a legal opinion that he could use to revoke Rail Cycle's conditional use permit.
But Leal would not provide one. Leal said that he was concerned Rail Cycle could sue the city and win and advised that a better course was to wait, since the project might die of natural causes.
Argumedo would not be interviewed for this article, but associates described him as fed up with what he saw as Leal dragging his feet. He engineered Leal's firing and the hiring of a replacement who said that the city would be on solid legal ground stripping Rail Cycle of its permit.
Rail Cycle sued, and Leal's replacement, interim City Atty. Fernando Villa, won in court, persuading a judge that Rail Cycle could not reserve land indefinitely for future use. The company has appealed.
Leal and some of his associates, meanwhile, set out to punish Argumedo for having fired Leal.
Initially, they targeted Argumedo's half-brother, Hector Chacon, the effective head of Argumedo's local political family, who at the time was running for reelection to the school board of Montebello Unified, which also serves Commerce and nearby cities.
Leal and others associated with either Polanco or the law firm helped fund a campaign committee, called Parents for a Better Education, whose sole purpose was to defeat Hector Chacon.
Leal launched and directed the committee without Beltran's knowledge, both men say.
Polanco denies any connection with Rail Cycle or the committee.
The committee's records show that besides Leal, key donors included David J. Olivas, another lawyer who worked for the Beltran-Leal firm; George Castro, a financial manager who is Polanco's brother-in-law; George Pla, a longtime TELACU insider who heads Cordoba, a consulting firm; and Dario Frommer, then an attorney-lobbyist subcontractor for the Beltran-Leal firm. Frommer later became Gov. Gray Davis' appointments secretary, recommending to the governor who should get patronage jobs in state government, and is now an Assembly candidate from Los Angeles.
Chacon would not agree to be interviewed for this article.
However, his campaign consultant, Phil Giarrizzo, said his client had no doubt where his opposition was coming from. Chacon identified "the people who want to see me defeated because of my brother" as "Polanco, Leal," the consultant said.
Chacon, who had been the school board's top vote-getter, barely survived the challenge, finishing in third place with only three seats up for grabs.
Leal also wrote a petition to recall Argumedo.
He wrote it at the request of Edgar S. Miles, a Commerce activist who had reasons of his own to target Argumedo, according to both Miles and Leal.
Faced with the possibility of being recalled, Argumedo suddenly reversed himself on the question of Leal as city attorney and voted to rehire him.
Someone who knows Argumedo, who was interviewed on condition that his name not be published, said the councilman explained to him that the change of position was made under duress. "They told me, if we didn't take them back, they'd put $30,000 into the recall against me," the source quoted Argumedo as having said.
Leal and Beltran deny having made such a threat.
Leal suggested that Argumedo voted to rehire him for another reason. Leal said that the law firm that replaced his was costing more. The increased legal fees had become a big issue in the recall.
Who was behind the recall remains something of an official mystery.
Donors to the effort were not enumerated in a campaign report. Miles said that was because no contributor gave more than $100 and therefore names did not have to be disclosed under state law.
But not everyone believed that the recall was exclusively the grass-roots effort it seemed to be.
Bill Orozco, a political operative and one-time aide to former state Senate majority leader David Roberti, said he believed one of Roberti's successors, Polanco, was behind it.
He said he visited Polanco to try to persuade him to call off the recall, which had also targeted an Argumedo council ally.
"I told Polanco, 'Can we stop that [recall] taking place in Commerce?' " Orozco said. "And he said, 'No, I'm going to see that the two candidates are recalled.' He said, 'I didn't like what they did to people who are loyal to [me], so I'm going to punish them and take them out of office.' "
The two candidates were indeed recalled, although Argumedo later won reelection.
Polanco said that his alleged conversation with Orozco never took place. "People are going to say things and do things and create things based on sour grapes, and I think I get credited at times for things that I have very little to do with," the senator said. In fact, he said: "I had nothing to do with that recall."
If Bell Gardens was ground zero in Latino takeovers of city councils from whites, Lynwood was ground zero in Latino takeovers from blacks.
A three-member Latino council slate wrested control of the city from black politicians in 1997, with the aide of an independent expenditure campaign financed by an out-of-town billboard company looking for business opportunities and managed by the political consultant-husband of state Sen. Escutia.
After the slate won, Leal sought the city attorney's job and said he asked Polanco to lobby on his behalf. Polanco acknowledges providing a reference.
Leal got the job but lasted--as did slate unity--less than a year.
Slate member Ricardo Sanchez had a series of disagreements with his fellow Latinos on the council, who subsequently launched a recall campaign against him. Sanchez then allied himself with two black council members, forming a new majority which named him mayor and fired Leal. Sanchez blamed the lawyer--Leal says inaccurately--for playing a role in the recall attempt.
Leal said he once again turned to Polanco for help.
Polanco paid Sanchez a visit.
There are two very different accounts of what happened next.
Sanchez and a friend whose account was read into the record at a public meeting said that the senator told Sanchez that the recall attempt could be stopped, if he came back into the fold and voted to rehire Leal and/or a Latino city manager who had also gotten the ax.
"He was saying, 'We should work things out. The recall could die,' " Sanchez said.
Leal and Polanco deny that Polanco made that statement. Polanco said he had nothing to do with the recall attempt in Lynwood. He said he spoke generally, as a peacemaker. "I sit down and I tell them . . . 'Look, you guys are just getting started. You've got to learn to work together.' "
Leal says he regards what happened in Lynwood as "a tragic story, where a Latino community has been empowered but has been unable to overcome differences for a greater good."
He portrays himself as something of an idealist, trying to help "well-intentioned, humble individuals who want to improve these cities," but don't have the education or experience to do so.
Sanchez is not buying this. He survived the recall attempt when a petition alleging numerous improprieties on his part was invalidated for lack of enough valid signatures. But he remains embittered. "I have a lot of hate," he said. "They made me look like the worst guy in the whole world."