Some Cash In Before South Gate Vote

Times Staff Writer

In the days leading up to Tuesday's recall election, South Gate's leaders have passed a series of controversial measures benefiting politically connected businessmen, including one under investigation on allegations of electoral fraud.

The three members of the City Council majority, who are recall targets along with Treasurer Albert Robles, last week approved an $863,000 road-improvement contract for an engineering firm whose president, Hector Castillo, was recently subpoenaed by the Los Angeles County Grand jury.

The council has also awarded $2.4 million in federal low-interest loans to a businessman linked to Robles. The grants are designed to promote economic development. Some criticize the deal, saying city officials have provided no information on how many jobs would be created by a recycling plant that is to be built or how much tax revenue the city would receive.

As with other recent measures, council members did not explain their votes.

Tensions over these and other issues boiled over at a public forum Thursday night that ended with the largely pro-recall crowd jeering Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba, a recall target, as she left the auditorium.

When asked at the forum to elaborate on the recycling plant, Ruvalcaba said only: "It's a good deal for the community." She then referred the question to City Atty. Salvador Alva, who did not answer.

"There is no democracy in South Gate," screamed Angel Colon in front of hundreds at the South Gate High School auditorium. "This is a dictatorship."

But others said recall proponents are just trying to raise suspicions about every council move in the days before the election.

"To place every City Council action under a cloud of scandal is the kind of politics we have come to expect from these extremists," said Mark Werksman, Castillo's lawyer.

Residents on Tuesday will be asked whether they want to oust Robles, Ruvalcaba, Vice Mayor Raul Moriel and Councilwoman Maria Benavides.

The most controversial project involves the sale of an 11-acre, city-owned parcel to Robles' former business partner, George Garrido. He is buying the land for $1.9 million, but using only $400,000 of his own money. The balance comes from a $1.5-million federal loan.

Garrido raised his original $200,000 bid after two higher offers came in, one of them an all-cash, $1-million bid. The council also gave Garrido a $995,000 low-interest loan to buy machinery for the recycling plant planned for the site.

Critics say the deal amounts to a gift of taxpayer funds. "How does it serve the public interest?" asked Councilman Henry Gonzalez, a critic of the council majority.

"You're lending him money to secure a piece of land that others have come in and offered to buy without loans," he added.

Garrido, who co-owned a trucking company with Robles, was not available for comment. Robles has said he has no current business relationship with Garrido.

The council also is taking heat for authorizing a contract for H.C. & Associates to design a road widening project at an interchange at the Long Beach Freeway.

The firm's president, Hector Castillo, is the subject of an investigation by the district attorney's public integrity unit. His home and offices were searched by investigators this month. Residents have raised questions about the legality of a 36-line telemarketing operation run by Castillo.

They say he is using the taxpayer-funded phone bank to campaign against the recall.

But Werksman, his lawyer, said the engineer has been deemed guilty without even being charged with a crime.

"To make a blanket condemnation of Hector Castillo and render him ineligible for future city contracts is ridiculous," Werksman said.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Tuesday January 28, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 13 inches; 470 words Type of Material: Correction South Gate -- An article in Sunday's California section about South Gate politics inaccurately reported that City Atty. Salvador Alva did not answer a question posed to him during a public forum last week. Alva did answer the question, which related to the building of a recycling plant in the city.
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