Pressured by Delgadillo, deputy says
A career prosecutor said she was pressured by City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo in 2001 to drop criminal charges against grocery magnate George Torres for illegally demolishing low-income apartments.
Deputy City Atty. Asha Greenberg said Delgadillo called her to say he was “getting a lot of pressure on the case,” according to a memo she wrote at the time and placed in an internal case file. Delgadillo told Greenberg that Torres was concerned that a conviction would hurt his chances of getting beer and wine permits for his markets.
Greenberg said she already had received two calls from a member of Delgadillo’s executive staff, who suggested that the charges be dropped. She told them that to do so would be inappropriate.
“It was very unusual for Rocky to call me,” Greenberg said in an interview this week. “Given the calls that came earlier, I felt pressured.”
The city attorney’s office, in a written statement, denied that Delgadillo had exerted pressure and said he was simply responding to an “external inquiry” about the case. The case went forward, and the office obtained a conviction.
“The city attorney concurred that the matter was being handled properly and deferred to [her] decision to prosecute Mr. Torres to the fullest extent of the law for his transgressions.”
Still, the internal communications shed new light on Torres’ reach at City Hall.
Torres owns 11 Numero Uno markets scattered mostly throughout South Los Angeles, but also in Pico-Union, Monterey Park and South El Monte. He was the longtime business partner of Horacio Vignali, who drew national attention in 2001 when it was revealed he had enlisted a host of local law enforcement and elected officials to persuade President Clinton to pardon his cocaine-dealing son.
The U.S. attorney’s office this month unsealed an indictment that charged Torres with racketeering in an alleged conspiracy that included murder and exploitation of undocumented workers. Prosecutors outlined an alleged scheme by Torres to bribe Los Angeles area planning council members to obtain beer and wine permits for one of his markets.
One of those indicted along with Torres was Steven Carmona, a former city employee who had worked on Mayor Richard Riordan’s economic development team under Delgadillo, then a deputy mayor.
Neither Torres nor Carmona would comment, and neither has yet entered a plea in the federal case. Attorneys for the two said their clients did nothing wrong.
The indictment alleges that Carmona, then a member of Los Angeles’ Central Area Planning Commission, received pay and gifts from Torres in exchange for his assistance “in obtaining valuable zoning and conditional use permits” at a market on South Alvarado Street, particularly the beer and wine permits. Torres never got the permits.
The city attorney’s 2001 case involved the same market.
According to case documents, Torres wanted to demolish three small apartment buildings next to the store to make way for a parking lot. Bogged down in the demolition permit process, he razed the buildings without a permit and then, against the express orders of the Department of Building and Safety, turned the property into a parking lot without obtaining a conditional use permit or zoning variance, city prosecutors said.
On July 12, 2001, the city attorney’s office filed eight misdemeanor counts against Torres. The case was assigned to Deputy City Atty. Reginald Chun.
On Sept. 4, Scott Gluck, then an assistant city attorney who worked in Delgadillo’s executive office, called Chun and twice asked if they could make the case a civil matter, according to the internal case file.
“I explained [to Gluck] that Mr. Torres owns at least 10 properties, several in the city, and that he has been accused of performing work without permits on another parcel,” Chun wrote, according to a status log in the office’s internal case file. “I explained that he also has a criminal record” -- for carrying a concealed weapon -- “and based on his past conduct and present conduct, I was not confident he would conform to the law.”
Chun told Gluck that he had offered to allow Torres to plead guilty to two counts and serve a term of probation.
But Torres’ lawyer, Richard Marcus, told Chun his client did not want probation, according to documents in the file. The state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control does not give permits to applicants on probation.
A week later, Chun received a 9:30 a.m. phone message from Gluck, the status log said. Gluck said that after talking to Ann D’Amato -- Delgadillo’s chief of staff, who was not an attorney -- he was recommending that Torres be given 90 days to comply with building and safety orders and then have the criminal charges dismissed.
Chun referred the calls to Greenberg, who, sources said, received two calls from Gluck, also pushing to drop the criminal case.
About the same time, Terree A. Bowers, a former U.S. attorney and a federal prosecutor for 20 years who was then Delgadillo’s chief deputy, saw D’Amato meeting with Torres’ representatives, sources in the office said.
Bowers told her that the discussion was inappropriate and instructed her not to talk to the representatives again, sources said. “Terree really read them the riot act for what they were doing,” one source said.
During a court session, Torres’ attorney told prosecutors that he was only a “bystander” in the case, because he was not being informed of the “negotiations between [the city attorney] executive office and his client,” according to the internal case file.
In response to questions from The Times, the city attorney’s office said D’Amato, who was Delgadillo’s colleague on Riordan’s staff, did not recall the meeting with Torres’ people.
Delgadillo does not remember meeting Torres, his spokesman said.
“While it is possible the city attorney may have encountered Mr. Torres when he worked for Mayor Riordan, he does not recall such an encounter. Nor does the city attorney recall ever having met or spoken with Mr. Torres,” Delgadillo’s director of communications, Nick Velasquez, said in an e-mail.
After Bowers spoke to D’Amato, Delgadillo called Greenberg.
“Rocky said that he was getting a lot of pressure about this case,” Greenberg wrote in her memo about their conversation. “Rocky said that the defendant was a businessman who established businesses in minority, poor areas where other markets would not. That he was willing to donate buses to churches,” she wrote.
Greenberg said she told Delgadillo that Torres “tore down an apartment building and changed it into a parking lot,” something she said “would not sit well with housing advocates who wanted to ensure that there was adequate housing in the city.”
Greenberg, in the memo, said she told Delgadillo that “we had ethical constraints, and that we had to treat all defendants equally.”
“Rocky said that the defendant was concerned that sometime in the future if he wanted to get an [alcoholic beverage] license he would not be able to.”
Greenberg told Delgadillo that Torres “should not worry about a ticky-tack violation of the Muni code, he should worry about” more serious violations.
A background check had turned up an old criminal conviction against Torres for carrying a concealed weapon as well as his illegal possession of two driver’s licenses, one in the name of Jaime Ernesto Garcia, the internal case file shows.
“Rocky asked whether we had to disclose that to [the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control],” Greenberg wrote. She added that she told him “we would if we were asked.”
Greenberg said in an interview that, given the earlier calls from Delgadillo’s staff, she thought it was clear Delgadillo wanted her to drop criminal charges.
“Getting a call from the city attorney like that with everything that happened before was intimidating,” she said during a conference call with The Times and Velasquez. The press deputy said that under office policy, he had to be present for the interview.
Torres ultimately entered into an agreement with prosecutors to plead guilty to one misdemeanor count and serve 12 months on probation, plus fines and fees.
As part of the plea bargain, the city attorney’s office agreed to write a letter to the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control explaining the case: “The city attorney’s office agrees it will indicate in this letter that defendant has applied for a conditional use permit and has agreed to take steps to ensure compliance with any such permit, and that the purpose of the probation in this case is to ensure such compliance.”