The name of an influential Los Angeles lobbyist and former deputy mayor has surfaced in court here as members of a troubled water agency traded charges of bribery.
The former president of the Otay Water District testified Tuesday that businessman-lobbyist Art M. Gastelum, a former aide to Mayor Tom Bradley, offered him a $1-million bribe to win his vote for an electricity project in early 2001.
Another member of the water district, however, has said the president solicited the bribe himself. Gastelum, through his lawyer, denied any wrongdoing. All agree the project never came up for a vote and no bribes were paid.
Gastelum, who spent nearly two decades as an assistant to Bradley before leaving City Hall in 1990, is a major fund-raiser and government contractor. His company, Gateway Science and Engineering of Pasadena, has collected millions of dollars for construction management work at the Los Angeles Unified School District, the Port of Los Angeles and Los Angeles International Airport.
His name arose in the course of a wrongful-termination lawsuit filed by Ruben Rodriguez, former auditor of the Otay Water District, which serves 144,000 customers in southern San Diego County.
Rodriguez contends he was fired for complaining that six friends of Jaime Bonilla, then president of the district’s board, had been placed on the payroll and that Bonilla had run up $123,000 in legal bills before he was even sworn into office.
The trial began in San Diego District Court last week.
In his defense, Bonilla argues that the auditor was fired for falsifying his educational background. Bonilla has also painted himself as a corruption-buster. As evidence, Bonilla testified Tuesday about Gastelum’s alleged bribe attempt and said he reported it to the FBI and worked as an informant for five months. The federal government has confirmed using Bonilla as an informant, but said no criminal charges would be filed in the case.
In Bonilla’s telling, the bribery attempt occurred soon after he joined the water district in January 2001. Bonilla said fellow board member Fred Cardenas introduced him to Gastelum, who wanted the district to invest $20 million in an electrical line that was passing through district property on the way to Mexico. According to Bonilla, Gastelum argued that the district’s investment would give it a piece of the electrical generation business and turn it into a bigger utility district.
Bonilla said Cardenas told him that Gastelum was “very influential in the L.A. Basin. He was a former deputy mayor, so I was impressed.”
Bonilla said he met with Gastelum and Cardenas at a San Diego restaurant and told them to present the project to the board. Bonilla said Gastelum replied that the project could not wait.
Bonilla said the lobbyist told him, “It’s going to be good for the district and we want to make sure it’s good for you. We want to make you happy. You stand to make a lot of money on this project.”
“I’m willing to offer you $1 million and Fred’s going to get another million,” Bonilla quoted Gastelum as saying. Bonilla said Gastelum urged him not to worry about a third board member, Tony Inocentes, because he had been “taken care of.”
Bonilla said he contacted the FBI at his lawyer’s urging and secretly recorded numerous subsequent conversations with Gastelum, Cardenas and Inocentes. He said the probe stopped after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
On Monday, Cardenas told a different story from the witness stand.
He said Bonilla had pressured Gastelum for a $1-million bribe. Under cross-examination, Cardenas acknowledged that he did not approach authorities about the matter until several months later, when he told the San Diego district attorney’s office. He said local prosecutors were not interested because the FBI was investigating.
Asked outside the courtroom whether Gastelum ever offered him a bribe, Inocentes said, “No.”
Gastelum’s attorney, Don Steier, said Gastelum was not “a willing participant” in the scheme and called Bonilla an “unsavory individual.”
Times staff writer Nicholas Riccardi contributed to this report.