With South Gate emerging from political turmoil and government scandal, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley heaped praise Wednesday on a gathering of civic leaders for retaking "control of your government and your lives."
"South Gate -- once the poster child for corruption and abuse -- is now a metaphor for democracy," said Cooley, whose office is now investigating possible misuse of public funds in the recent recall election.
That vote removed former City Treasurer Albert Robles, the former mayor and their two City Council allies.
"You here in South Gate have given the rest of the county, even the country, a lesson in effective civic involvement," he said. "You organized, you voted and you weren't intimidated. You stood up, and I was proud to stand up with you."
Cooley's Public Integrity Division has been conducting a variety of investigations in South Gate since he took office two years ago.
Last year his office charged Robles with threatening to kill several political opponents and rape a state senator. But a jury deadlocked and a mistrial was declared.
Cooley said in an interview Wednesday that he is investigating whether the opponents of the recall illegally used city funds to oppose the election.
Newly elected Vice Mayor Henry Gonzalez said Robles' administration spent about $1.5 million for legal fees to challenge the legality of the recall.
Earlier this week, state Controller Steve Westly launched an audit of South Gate's finances, covering Robles' two-year reign. During their last week in office, Robles and former Mayor Xochilt Ruvalcaba signed more than $2 million in checks, most of which went to law firms.
In his speech, Cooley spoke to more than 200 members of eight South Gate civic clubs gathered for their annual Inter-Service Club luncheon.
Many of them praised Cooley's investigations into corruption in the smaller cities of Los Angeles County.
Although they said the credit for the change of regime in South Gate goes to "the grass-roots effort" led by civic leaders and the local police association, they said the corruption investigations encouraged people to persist in their recall efforts.
Cooley's willingness to take on more powerful institutions, however, such as the county Board of Supervisors, has been questioned by some critics.
With an adoring audience in front of him, Cooley used the opportunity to take a swipe at those critics.
Drawing loud applause, he said, "Those who suggest we should use our resources just to go after the big fish are implying ... we shouldn't be working in those communities where there are substantial portions of working poor people.
"I reject that suggestion, and I will tell you, South Gate, you are worthy of our efforts."