Carson ... Compton ... South Gate ... and now Lynwood.
In the latest public corruption case in southeastern Los Angeles County, former Lynwood Mayor Paul Richards is scheduled to go on trial today on charges of steering millions of dollars worth of no-bid contracts to a consulting company he secretly owned.
The allegations against Richards, a lawyer who served on the Lynwood City Council for 17 years until his ouster in a recall election, bear a striking resemblance to those leveled against former South Gate Mayor Albert Robles, who was convicted in July of soliciting more than $1.8 million in bribes from bidders on municipal contracts.
In Carson, a wide-ranging federal corruption probe led to the convictions of two former mayors, two City Council members and six other persons involved in a series of bribery schemes that cost the city more than $12 million.
And in Compton, an investigation by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office resulted in the convictions last year of former Mayor Omar Bradley and two other city officials on charges of misappropriating public funds. Why these communities? There are no easy answers. But Robert M. Stern, president of the Center for Government Studies, a non-partisan research organization in Los Angeles, sees some common threads.
These are small, working-class cities that are not well covered by the news media, allowing officeholders to think they can engage in corruption “without coming under anyone’s radar,” he said.
All four communities have undergone dramatic population shifts and the collapse of high-paying blue-collar jobs, as manufacturing shut down. The changes brought to power new and relatively inexperienced politicians, some of whom might have found it difficult to resist the temptation to enrich themselves, Stern added.
Stern, who served for nine years as general counsel for the California Fair Political Practices Commission, also credits the district attorney’s office and the U.S. attorney’s office with becoming more aggressive in their pursuit of corrupt politicians.
One of the county’s poorest cities, Lynwood operated with a $13-million annual budget while Richards held office.
At the same time, his city income topped $100,000 a year, making him one of the state’s highest paid part-time politicians.
His recall two years ago followed a series of articles in the Los Angeles Times that disclosed his questionable business dealings.
A federal grand jury subsequently indicted him on more than 30 criminal counts, including conspiracy to commit extortion, fraud, money laundering and depriving the public of honest services. Richards, 49, has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.
Facing trial with him are his sister, Paula Cameo Harris, 56, of Altadena, who served as president of Allied Government Services, the front company Richards allegedly set up to do business with the city; and Bevan A. Thomas, 56, of Anaheim, a longtime friend and business associate who is accused of bribing Richards in return for city contracts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
In 1999, Richards and the City Council majority he controlled awarded a contract to remove litter, weeds and other public eyesores to a company that Thomas set up in his wife’s name.
At Richards’ insistence, prosecutors allege, Thomas turned over responsibility for performing the cleanup to Allied, taking a $1,000-a-week “cut” for himself for serving as a conduit to the city.
Allied, which had no office, equipment or capital, paid Richards’ gardener and other subcontractors $800 to $1,200 a week to perform the actual cleanup services.
Thomas, meanwhile, billed the city $4,995 a week under his contract. Over the next two years, the indictment said, he collected $623,000 from the city, paying $379,000 of that to Allied.
From Allied’s share of the proceeds, the indictment said, Richards paid $1,000 to $1,500 a week as salaries to his sister and to a nephew, Julio Naulls, who worked in Richards’ political campaigns. Naulls is listed as an “unindicted co-schemer” in the case.
The firm also paid $4,000 for improvements to a house Richards owned in Cerritos, made unreported campaign contributions to Richards’ political allies in Lynwood and neighboring Compton and picked up a tab for some of his campaign printing costs.
As the nuisance abatement contract was about to expire in late 2001, Richards arranged for Thomas to receive a 10-year extension as well as an additional $200,000 to $300,000 to serve as the city’s consultant on trash collection, according to the indictment.
Richards cast the deciding council vote in favor of the contract, which was scrapped after his recall.
While that deal was being hatched, the indictment said, Richards required the city’s trolley operator, Commuter Bus Lines, to hire Allied as a $7,500-a-month consultant in exchange for a five-year contract renewal.
The trolley service balked, demanding a fee increase to cover Allied’s fees. The City Council granted the fee hike, which wound up costing the taxpayers $62,500 “for little or no work of any value,” according to the indictment.
In a third contract, Richards allegedly orchestrated a deal in which the city hired Allied as its exclusive representative in the selection of a company to erect billboards along the Century Freeway.
Allied was to receive 20% of all fees the city collected.
Behind the scenes, the indictment said, Richards already was in the process of negotiating a deal with Regency Outdoor Advertising.
Regency was ultimately awarded the coveted no-bid contract, agreeing to pay the city $4.8 million, of which $960,000 would have gone to Allied.
The deal with Regency was scuttled, however, after Richards lost control of his council majority in elections in late 2001.
Prosecutors plan to call more than 40 witnesses over four weeks, according to a trial memorandum submitted to U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausner, who is presiding over the trial.