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Allegations Roil a Sedate City

Times Staff Writer

In the sprawling industrial region southeast of downtown Los Angeles, where working-class cities like South Gate and Lynwood have struggled with municipal corruption, the city of Commerce has long been held up as the exception.

Unlike some neighbors, this town of 13,000 has been largely free of scandal or rancor.

It has prospered thanks in large part to card club revenues, which make up 40% of the municipal budget, as well as prominent commercial developments like the Assyrian-style Citadel outlet shops off the Santa Ana Freeway.

Many of the city’s services -- youth leagues, city pools and fitness centers -- are free. The population -- most of it Latino -- boasts of clean parks, plenty of city-sponsored activities and even city-owned cabins in the San Bernardino Mountains where residents can vacation. The city’s website carries the slogan “Where quality service is our tradition.”

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But this summer, Commerce has been shaken by allegations of wrongdoing -- against two council members -- that have come to dominate civic discourse.

First, Councilwoman Nancy Ramos was accused of accepting a three-night stay at the Bellagio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas from the Commerce Casino, the city’s top employer. Then, a Las Vegas man strode to the podium at a City Council meeting in August and accused Councilman Ray Cisneros of molesting him when he was a child -- charges the official strongly denies.

Both accusations, now under investigation by authorities, have divided a city not accustomed to controversy.

“At the latest City Council meetings, it’s taken up all of the time,” said Marki Leonard, president of the Industrial Council, the city’s chamber of commerce. “The most important issues with the residents and businesses have been ignored. It’s slowed things down.”

The Aug. 17 council meeting, for example, went over by at least an hour because a large part of it was spent discussing the molestation allegations, according to the city administrator. The clerk’s office has been swamped with requests from residents and the media for public records about elected officials.

Commerce’s reputation as a well-run city has long been a point of pride among residents. For decades, Commerce and the rest of southeast Los Angeles County were the heart of the area’s industrial belt. The Citadel -- with its stained glass and stone turrets -- was a tire plant. The city’s original slogan was “Commerce means business.”

But by the 1970s, many of the rubber and other old heavy-manufacturing plants had closed, and the communities of southeast Los Angeles County had to reinvent themselves.

For many surrounding towns, the change has caused turmoil at City Hall. Over two decades, cities such as Bell, Bell Gardens, Huntington Park and South Gate have endured scandals involving bribery, wiretapping, firebombing and even fistfights involving elected officials.

But with the card club and conversion of the old Uniroyal plant into an outlet mall, Commerce made a better transformation than some.

Only about 7% of the city’s land is devoted to residential development, but residents said they liked the small-town feel of Commerce. When a runaway freight train smashed into a neighborhood last year, the city came together.

So this summer’s charges and countercharges have troubled some.

“There’s a lot of controversy,” said Robert Cornejo, a former mayor and council member in Commerce who served from 1984 to 1997. “Some people want to believe the worst; some people want to believe the least.”

It began in March. Ramos said she traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for Proposition 68, a measure on California’s November ballot that could allow slot machines in some card rooms, including the one in Commerce. While she was there, Ramos said, Commerce Casino officials offered her a stay at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

“People from the casino told me to take a rest,” she said. “They said, ‘When you come back from D.C., we need you to get some rest.’ ”

She paid for the three-night stay with her city-issued credit card.

A few weeks later, city Finance Director Vilko Domic noticed the Bellagio charge on the card. When he called the luxury hotel, he was told to ignore the $1,991 charge because the Commerce Casino had paid the bill, he said.

Public officials generally may not accept gifts that exceed $340 from any one donor, according to state law.

Ramos said in an interview with The Times that she should not have used the city-issued card and that she had abstained from voting on casino matters.

Some ethics experts said her abstention might not clear her of wrongdoing.

“These laws are designed to instill public trust, so that officials are completely independent of economic interests,” said Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies and former legal counsel for the California League of Cities. “It would be common sense to realize that there’s a problem and that there’s a conflict of interest.”

Additionally, Ramos has provided receipts for just half of the $10,231 worth of expenses the city originally questioned for its audit, according to Domic.

But Ramos said her only mistake was the pace at which she had taken her receipts to City Hall.

“I accept full responsibility for not bringing all my receipts in a timely manner,” said Ramos, who was elected in March 2003. “It was my bad. If I would’ve turned in all my receipts, I wouldn’t be in this mess.”

Still, although she has repaid about $600 worth of the personal items bought with the city’s credit card, officials said using public funds for personal use was illegal.

“It’s not as if a city credit card is a lending bank,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Susan Chasworth of the Public Integrity Division, which is reviewing the case to determine if a full investigation is warranted.

Although the Ramos’ situation has garnered public attention, it’s the allegations against Cisneros that have become the talk of the town. At the Aug. 2 and Aug. 17 meetings, Tomas Lopez said Cisneros, a family friend, would sleep at his home and sexually abuse him.

Additionally, officials are reviewing allegations that Cisneros’ city-owned computer was used in attempts to access pornographic websites.

After hearing about the computer accusations in June, the City Council took away Cisneros’ mayoral title. The county Sheriff’s Department has opened an investigation into the molestation allegations, which is routine when a complaint is filed.

Cisneros said he had done nothing wrong and called the allegations politically motivated. Although the freelance political affairs consultant confirms that there has been “inappropriate use of the city computer issued to him,” he says he was not the one using it at the time.

On at least two occasions since January, the city’s information technology department recorded Cisneros’ computer attempting to enter sexually explicit sites, which were blocked by special software.

With residents transfixed by the controversies, there is now a website that tracks the latest developments. “The fallout is still developing,” said Jason Stinnett, who launched www.save commerce.org this summer.

Meanwhile, city officials said they were trying to stay focused on business.

“It takes a toll on you,” Domic said. “These particular items seem to preoccupy everyone’s mind.”


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