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5 Top Compton Officials Charged With Fund Misuse

Times Staff Writers

Former Compton Mayor Omar Bradley, current City Manager John D. Johnson II and a majority of the City Council were arrested Monday on charges of misusing public funds.

Sources familiar with the investigation said investigators found evidence that the five misused city credit cards by charging a variety of personal expenses, including food, limousines, travel and an emergency trip to the dentist.

The charges capped a three-year probe by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office into possible misuse of taxpayer funds.

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Former mayor Bradley remains a dominant political figure in the working class city of 93,000 in southeastern Los Angeles County.

If convicted, the five could be barred from elective office in California for life and would be subject to a maximum of four years in prison.

For now, the three members of the Compton City Council who are among the accused remain in office.

The investigation is one of three into possible wrongdoing by Compton officials. The other two, by federal investigators, are continuing.

Johnson was arrested Monday morning in San Bernardino County, where he lives, law enforcement officials said. Council members Delores Zurita and Yvonne Arceneaux were arrested at their Compton homes. Bradley and council member Amen Rahh surrendered later in the day. All were released after posting $25,000 bonds, jail officials said.

Grand jury indictments were returned under seal against the five late last week and were expected to remain sealed until March 24, when the five are due in court to be arraigned.

None of those arrested was available for comment Monday. Calls to their City Hall offices were not returned. Bradley’s lawyer, Milton Grimes, said Monday night that his client had done nothing wrong. Bradley had reimbursed the city for personal charges on his city credit card within an allowable grace period, Grimes said.

But on the steps of City Hall, Bradley’s opponents celebrated the news of the arrests.

“The crooks are in jail! The crookety crooks!” Jackie Hardy, a retired nurse and 40-year Compton resident, who gave her age as mid-50s, yelled at the top of her lungs.

“Thank the Lord!” hooted Gladys M. Russell, 77.

“We’ve been paying taxes for 50 years, and we’re tired of crooked government,” said longtime resident Joyce Taylor, 70. “We want to clean up our city and get the services we deserve.”

Hardy brought a wreath of flowers, saying it symbolized the death of the majority faction on the council that has been allied with Bradley against current Mayor Eric Perrodin.

Perrodin, a deputy district attorney who defeated Bradley in a still-contested 2001 election, said Monday that “if the charges turn out to be true, I think it’s going to be like a phoenix for the city of Compton. We’re going to rise from the ashes.”

Representatives of the district attorney’s office refused to comment Monday on details of the case, or even to acknowledge whom they had arrested, saying they were barred from doing so by a judicial order that cited grand jury secrecy requirements.

The order came from David Wesley, the assistant presiding judge of Superior Court in Los Angeles County, the officials said. Wesley did not respond to a request for an explanation Monday.

People familiar with the probe, however, speaking on the condition they not be identified, said investigators found evidence that:

* Bradley, 44, charged luggage and personal trips to Las Vegas to his city-issued credit card and double-billed the city for some trips.

* Johnson, who holds an appointed office, used his card to pay for a health club membership and electronic equipment from a discount store, and to take a children’s basketball team on a trip to Florida.

* Rahh, 54, who teaches black studies at Cal State Long Beach and Compton College, used his card to pay for having his teeth fixed and for family members’ trips, as well as for hotel stays in Los Angeles County and car rentals.

* Zurita, 66, who runs a meals on wheels program partly funded by the city, rented a limousine, allowed family members to use her card and used it herself to pay for personal trips to Las Vegas.

* Arceneaux, 56, a school secretary, used her card to pay for car repairs and trips to Las Vegas and to pay restaurant charges that were not incurred doing public business.

The cards are issued by the city “exclusively for travel and meeting reservations related to city business,” according to city regulations.

Rahh, Johnson and some of the others repaid some questioned charges to the city.

Of the two federal investigations into allegations of corruption in Compton, one involves the awarding of a garbage contract to a businessman who is a friend of Bradley.

The politically connected businessman, Michael Aloyan, first promised to deliver the waste contract to other firms if they paid him at least $1 million, two garbage haulers have said. After they refused, the Compton City Council awarded Aloyan the contract.

Aloyan pleaded guilty last month to charges that he offered a $1-million bribe to a councilman in nearby Carson for that city’s garbage contract. He has promised to cooperate with authorities, court records show.

The other federal investigation involves a series of transactions between Compton officials and a longtime councilman from neighboring Lynwood, Paul Richards.

City records and interviews show that Compton officials agreed to sell some of the best land the city owns to Richards, who has no experience as a developer, for millions of dollars less than it is worth.

The development deal grew out of a lawsuit filed in the late 1990s. In that suit, Richards alleged that the city had wrongly declined to renew his contract as a part-time labor negotiator.

Bradley and his allies at one point suggested paying Richards nearly $1.4 million to settle that suit, according to the city’s outside trial counsel. That plan was abandoned after the lawyer wrote the City Council saying that a settlement that large would constitute an improper gift of public funds. The suit was then settled for $350,000, officials said. Critics allege that the real estate deal was designed as an alternative way to provide more money to Richards.

In addition to their legal problems, two of those charged, Rahh and Zurita, who is Bradley’s aunt, are up for reelection April 15.

Zurita’s opponents include Compton school board member Barbara Calhoun. Rahh’s include school board President Isadore Hall, school administrator Fred Easter, stationery store owner and former Councilman Fred Cressel and Willie McReynolds, a leader of an unsuccessful campaign to recall Bradley.

A defeat of Rahh and Zurita could create a new governing coalition for Perrodin. He squeaked by Bradley in their 2001 race, but has been increasingly isolated on a City Council still largely loyal to Bradley.

Bradley, who served two terms before his defeat, has contested his election loss in court. Superior Court Judge Judith Chirlin initially ruled in Bradley’s favor. She cited an academic’s theory that an improper decision to list Perrodin’s name above Bradley’s on the ballot had cost Bradley his margin of victory, because people tend to vote for the first name they see. An appeals court stayed her decision, leaving Perrodin in office until the case is resolved.

The appeals court heard oral arguments in the case last month.

Bradley has been the dominant political figure in Compton in recent years, running a political operation that built new housing and shrank the municipal work force while making certain that many of his own relatives and friends got jobs.

The city hired one of his older brothers as a contract compliance office, a nephew as a construction trainer, another nephew as an intern, a cousin as a special project coordinator, and a brother-in-law as a management analyst. Another brother joined Aloyan’s trash company. Childhood friends became top aides.

The outcome of the case could end Bradley’s dominance of the city, said Jacqueline Watkins, publisher of the Compton Bulletin, whose cartoons have lampooned Bradley and his allies. “But what’s going to come next? That’s the thing. It’s a mess.”

*

Corruption probes in other L.A.-area cities:

Various public officials, candidates and others are awaiting trial or have pleaded guilty or no contest to crimes in recent months.

CARSON

* Pete Fajardo, former mayor. Pleaded guilty in January to extortion and agreed to cooperate with authorities in an ongoing corruption probe in the city.

* Raunda Frank, former councilwoman. Scheduled to enter a guilty plea in April to extortion charges. Frank resigned her council seat in December after being indicted and negotiated a deal with prosecutors.

* Manny Ontal, former councilman. Triggered the corruption probe when he contacted the U.S. attorney’s office and agreed to help with the investigation. He resigned from the council last spring, and last month pleaded guilty to a single charge each of extorting a bribe and filing a false income tax return.

* Daryl Sweeney, mayor. He was indicted on extortion and other charges in November but has pleaded not guilty and has vowed to keep his office while he prepares for trial, currently scheduled for April 29.

HUNTINGTON PARK

* Linda Guevara, former councilwoman. Convicted in October 2002 on four counts for lying about her residency to qualify for the ballot.

SOUTH GATE

* Angel Gonzalez, a printer of political campaign mailers. He pleaded no contest in July 2002 to a charge that he published a mailer containing false depictions of official documents.

* Katrina Jackson, former City Council candidate. Pleaded no contest in July 2002 to a charge that she lied about her residency to qualify for the ballot.

* Richard Mayer, former City Council candidate. Convicted in November 2001 of seven felony counts for lying about his residency to qualify for the ballot.

* Albert Robles, former treasurer. Charged with threatening to kill four people and possessing illegal weapons. The threats case was dismissed in January after a jury deadlocked. The weapons charges are pending.


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