In a dramatic fall from a position of political influence, former Los Angeles City Councilman Martin Ludlow announced his resignation Tuesday as head of a powerful Southern California labor group and was close to reaching a plea bargain with prosecutors who believe union money flowed illegally to his council campaign.
A veteran political figure and close confidant of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Ludlow served just eight months as executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor after resigning his council post to fill the union void left by the unexpected death last May of his mentor, Miguel Contreras.
“It has been my joy, my honor, and my privilege to be a part of the most dynamic labor movement anywhere in the United States of America,” said Ludlow, 41. “However, as a result of errors in my judgment, I must take these steps to begin to accept full responsibility for the mistakes that I made.”
Ludlow said he will cooperate with federal, state and city investigators who believe that Service Employees International Union Local 99, which represents school workers, illegally funneled at least $53,000 into his 2003 race.
According to sources, authorities offered Ludlow a deal that might allow him to avoid jail but he would face $181,000 in fines, $81,000 in restitution and be barred for more than a decade from serving in public office or a union leadership position.
Authorities had set a Tuesday deadline for Ludlow to accept the deal, but late in the day sources said some of the terms were still being negotiated.
John Vandevelde, an attorney for Ludlow, would only confirm that “we are engaged in discussions.”
For days, news of the case against Ludlow had evoked private expressions of dismay and, in some cases, perplexed anger among labor activists in Los Angeles County. Many of Ludlow’s friends and associates said the penalties he faced seemed vastly excessive, considering that similar city campaign finance violations have resulted in fines -- but no threat of criminal prosecution.
This case was different, sources said, because Ludlow allegedly actively encouraged the union to provide illegal help to his campaign, and the money involved came from labor union accounts that the federal government oversees.
Ludlow’s resignation was seen as a serious blow to labor in Southern California. He was popular and charismatic and had the support of many factions that often battle with one another. The federation is an umbrella group of 357 unions with about 825,000 members.
“It’s just a tremendous loss for labor,” said Fred Lowe of Laborers Local 777.
Ludlow, who is black, brought a compelling personal story to his public and union posts. At 9 months old, he was adopted by a white Methodist minister and his wife in Idaho who were longtime activists for a number of social causes. After moving to Los Angeles, he enter the political world and eventually served as Villaraigosa’s deputy chief of staff when he served as state Assembly speaker.
Reached in Sacramento, where he had been meeting with state officials, Villaraigosa said he had always believed that if Ludlow did anything wrong he would “take full responsibility for his actions and demonstrate he understood there are consequences that come when you make a mistake.”
The mayor agreed the effect on labor would be significant. “Clearly they have lost a dynamic, energetic leader and one that is going to be difficult to replace,” Villaraigosa said.
During an emotional news conference Tuesday at the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, Ludlow was surrounded by about 30 union employees and supporters.
Among them were his wife, Kimberly, and father-in-law, Bishop Charles Blake, of the 24,000-member West Angeles Church of God in Christ.
“I’m sure he’s going to bounce back,” Blake said after the news conference. “It’s a tragic day but his family loves him, his wife loves him, and we are standing with him solidly.”
Also present was Maria Elena Durazo, who sources said may become the interim head of the federation when its executive board meets Thursday. Durazo, who leads a hotel workers union, is also Contreras’ widow.
During much of his speech, Ludlow recounted what he described as his accomplishments, such as helping to defeat Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s special election ballot measures last fall.
“It is within that same year that I had hoped that the issues I’m dealing with now could have been resolved.... But clearly they won’t be,” Ludlow said. “And so now I am here today to not only state that I accept full responsibility for my mistakes.... I must say it is difficult to stand in front of you during this time of great personal pain.”
He also apologized to his wife and family.
“I am sorry. But I promise you I will not hide away and feel sorry for myself,” he said, adding that he would dedicate himself to volunteering, teaching and advocating on issues, and learning.
“Out of this challenge,” the former councilman said, “I will become a better man and a better leader in our community.”
Ludlow is facing potential federal and state conspiracy charges alleging that he approached leaders of SEIU Local 99 and asked them to hire people at the union who instead worked on his campaign, according to sources familiar with the probe who spoke on the condition they not be named.
His campaign also allegedly received cellphones, computers and phone banking at union expense.
At least four of the phantom union workers are cooperating with prosecutors, telling them of Ludlow’s role, according to the sources.
Those cooperating also include an administrative assistant to former Local 99 President Janett Humphries. Sources said the assistant has provided a list of names allegedly submitted by Ludlow to be placed on the union payroll.
Prosecutors have reportedly offered Humphries a plea bargain similar to Ludlow’s, but her attorneys said Tuesday that she intends to fight the charges.
“She is prepared to vigorously pursue exposing the truth in this matter, and the prosecution will soon realize that their SEIU sources, who were terminated, have an unscrupulous agenda,” Ricardo A. Torres II said.
At the news conference, Ludlow made a special mention of Villaraigosa, predicting that his resignation would not significantly harm the mayor.
“The city of Los Angeles is strong and has a great future under a man who has the potential to become one of the greatest presidents in American history,” Ludlow said. “I love him dearly and Mayor Villaraigosa will be just fine.”
Times staff writers Jim Newton contributed to this report from Los Angeles and Jennifer Oldham from Sacramento.