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A City’s Political Turmoil Worsens

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A former attorney caught forging documents and embezzling money has been working in South Gate for 10 months, racking up $200-an-hour fees as the city’s trial specialist.

Known as Cristeta Klaparda in South Gate, to authorities she is Cristeta Paguirigan, a disbarred lawyer with a history of felony convictions and probation violations.

Paguirigan, 42, has not been convicted in any South Gate-related crimes, but she faces a potential three-year prison term in October if she doesn’t repay $33,900 to several past clients.

Though she’s barred from working as an attorney, Paguirigan’s hourly rate tops that of many lawyers, including the South Gate city attorney, who earns $185 per hour.

The revelations add to the city’s turmoil. With the city awash in political corruption investigations--the most recent raid saw 150 investigators swarm City Hall, homes and offices throughout the city--leaders and residents bemoan South Gate’s worsening image.

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But though officials defend Paguirigan’s hiring, critics say it is fresh evidence of government irresponsibility. In another often-cited example, Treasurer Albert Robles in May was appointed deputy city manager--at a salary of $111,000--just one month after being charged with threatening to kill public officials. His preliminary hearing is scheduled for Monday.

“They are getting together individuals with similar backgrounds, and a lack of ethics and morals ... people with a lot of baggage,” said Councilman Henry Gonzalez, a frequent critic of the council majority. “It’s like looking at a piece of fish. After a while, it starts to smell.”

Apart from the Paguirigan controversy, officials also have hired an engineer, Hector A. Castillo, who, a judge said last year, may have embezzled money from the Los Angeles chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, a nonprofit group he once headed.

Hired in December, Castillo’s firm, H.C. & Associates, now helps manage South Gate projects totaling $40 million. Castillo, who has not been prosecuted for his work with the group, denies any wrongdoing.

Some South Gate officials defend both appointments. Castillo’s firm is credited with providing thorough inspections and review work, while Paguirigan is described as a hard-working labor specialist.

“I really don’t get involved with who does what as long as the work gets done,” said Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba, speaking of Paguirigan’s case. “I just know that she’s a very intelligent, bright woman, who unfortunately made a mistake in the past.”

Ruvalcaba said she wasn’t aware of Paguirigan’s embezzlement convictions, but suggested that her forgery conviction, a felony, was the result of a misunderstanding.

“From what I know, it was an honest mistake.... I don’t see the big deal about that,” she said.

Paguirigan pleaded no contest in 1997 to forging a witness’ signature on court documents. She was subsequently disbarred because the crime involved an act of moral turpitude.

City Atty. Salvador Alva said he knew of Paguirigan’s disbarment, but not the details of her criminal past. Alva said he would not give an opinion on her until he addresses the council on the issue next week. Paguirigan’s tenure dates to July, when the city hired her employer, Los Angeles lawyer Clifton Albright, as the city’s labor counsel.

A City Hall Regular

Paguirigan, who works as a labor and trial specialist, appears regularly at City Hall, often seen at meetings or court hearings scribbling in a legal note pad.

Her work takes varied forms, according to a review of billing statements. Among other things, she prepares motions, analyzes cases and makes frequent “strategy” session phone calls to clients.

According to state law and the state bar’s rules of professional conduct, disbarred attorneys are prohibited from practicing law. And attorneys who hire disbarred lawyers must notify their clients.

Albright has notified officials of Paguirigan’s disbarment, and said she does only paralegal work. But Councilman Gonzalez said Paguirigan has given legal advice in the past and notes that her compensation exceeds that of many attorneys. At $200 hourly, she earns more than Alva, the city attorney ($185), and Special Counsel Eduardo Olivo ($190).

“She’s not an attorney, but she’s acting like an attorney,” said Gonzalez.

South Gate officials said they had not tallied how much the city has paid for Paguirigan’s services since July. But, according to Gonzalez, in one three-month period her law firm billed the city $171,000 for her work.

Albright recently admitted double-billing the city about $6,000, some of it for Paguirigan’s work. Albright said the double billing resulted from a clerical error.

Paguirigan, a 1984 graduate of UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, had a private practice before coming to South Gate. Her run-ins with law enforcement started in the mid-1990s, when she was convicted of forging a witness’ signature on court documents.

In 1998, she was convicted on two felony counts of stealing $37,500 from a trust account while working as legal counsel for Spectator Management Group. The private company manages the Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center.

Repayment Ordered

Paguirigan, according to prosecutors, stole money intended to settle a wrongful termination lawsuit of an ex-employee. Sentenced to five years’ probation, Paguirigan, prosecutors say, violated the terms of probation by not making court appearances, failing to repay her victims and committing new felonies.

Paguirigan, interviewed by telephone, vowed to make amends to her victims.

“I intend to keep an absolutely clean record, to be vigilant and not having any lapses of judgment occur. And I intend to reapply for that [attorney] license,” she said.

In April, the most recent case, she admitted to stealing $15,000 from another client. She faces a three-year prison term if by October she doesn’t return that money, and $18,900 more to other alleged victims, according to the plea bargain agreement.

Accusations Denied

“The defendant is a danger to herself and the community,” said Superior Court Judge Michael A. Tynan in an April hearing. He said a “high [prison] term is appropriate ... because the planning, sophistication and her professionalism at which the crime was carried indicated premeditation.”

In a separate matter, district attorney investigators recently raided the offices of Paguirigan and Albright. Authorities suspect they were misusing public funds by working on a voter recall drive aimed at ousting elected officials in South Gate. Paguirigan and Albright vehemently deny the accusations.

Paguirigan is the name authorities use to refer to her in court documents, though in South Gate she uses Klaparda, the name of her ex-husband.

Castillo, the engineer, came to South Gate a few months after a judge ordered him to give up control of the Latino engineers group, a 100-member Los Angeles chapter of a national organization.

The chapter’s financial problems emerged in a legal battle started in 1998 when members accused Castillo, then its president, of rigging an election.

After a trial, the judge sided with the members and ordered a special master to review the finances. The special master, John A. Messina Jr., concluded that Castillo and another official of the organization probably stole thousands of dollars worth of the chapter’s assets.

The organization that once raised $80,000 a year in dues and corporate sponsorships had only 8 cents when Castillo turned it over, Messina reported.

The other official and “Castillo have left [the organization] in financial ruin and have, perhaps irrevocably, damaged the reputation of a leading minority-run nonprofit,” Messina wrote in his final report.

Superior Court Judge Stephen Czuleger expressed frustration with the pair. He said they avoided being served court documents and, at times, acted like “criminals.”

“What I assume is that everything the special master is saying may be true: These people are thieves,” said Czuleger, according to a court transcript.

However, Czuleger did not order the special master’s report forwarded to authorities, though he said members of the engineers group could do so.

The chapter’s new president, Michael Marquez, said he has sent the special master’s final report to the district attorney’s public integrity squad. David Demerjian, head of the unit, said his office would review the complaint.

Meanwhile, the civil case over control of the Latino engineers group remains unresolved while Castillo appeals the final ruling. He has not repaid debts owed by the organization and has created another nonprofit group, even though the judge disallowed him from competing with the original engineers group.

Castillo says his new organization--the Latino Engineers, Architects & Developers Society--does not compete with his former group. He also denies defrauding anyone and said he has not been prosecuted.

His problems, he said, grew from an internal power struggle. He added that he gave his heart to the organization for many years, volunteering time and money totaling more than $100,000.

“This is nothing more than an organization’s [members] fighting among themselves,” he said.


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