Alatorre returns as unofficial lobbyist
Former Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre is enjoying a second coming at City Hall.
Six years after he left the public stage -- his reputation in tatters after admitting that he took cash from people trying to influence him -- he has returned as an advocate for companies seeking city business.
The gravel-voiced 64-year-old, a pioneering Mexican American politician known as one of the architects of Latino empowerment in California, is trading on his status as an elder statesman. He is also an informal advisor to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
On behalf of various businesses and unions, he has called upon at least five City Council members and mayoral appointees at the Department of Water and Power, the Department of Recreation and Parks, the Planning Department, the Housing Department, the Port of Los Angeles, Los Angeles World Airports and the Community Redevelopment Agency, according to interviews and records.
But unlike dozens of other political professionals who do such work, Alatorre is not registered as a lobbyist under the city’s open government law. Registered lobbyists must reveal whom they work for and how much they are paid, or they risk jail or fines.
Jon Kirk Mukri, general manager of the parks department, said Alatorre has spoken with him six times over the last year and a half about the city’s park rangers, about a company seeking to renew its golf concession and about a charter school that wants to operate on parkland in El Sereno. Mukri said Alatorre receives no special treatment, calling the former councilman “just a lobbyist like anybody else.”
Sylmar neighborhood activist Bart Reed, who opposes a project that Alatorre has discussed with at least one council member, said community groups depend on disclosures to show them how much of an advantage special interests hold at City Hall. “Having that information about who’s lobbying . . . tells you what kind of uphill mountain you may have,” he said.
Alatorre did not respond to repeated requests by telephone and letter to be interviewed for this report.
To many in Los Angeles politics, Alatorre has been a legendary figure. He represented portions of the city’s Eastside in the state Assembly and on the City Council for more than a quarter of a century, from 1973 to 1999. And he built a powerful local political machine based in Boyle Heights, spearheaded the redesign of voting district maps to expand Latino representation throughout California and doled out a career full of favors in the form of jobs and advice.
Only once has the city Ethics Commission pursued someone for failing to register as a lobbyist. When asked to explain why, ethics officials said only that such a charge can be difficult to prove.
Yet, in many ways, Alatorre has been in plain sight, showing up at public meetings and walking the corridors at City Hall. Five council members -- Richard Alarcon, Jose Huizar, Bernard C. Parks, Jan Perry and Herb Wesson -- say Alatorre has spoken with them over the last 18 months on behalf of at least one of the following:
Home Depot, which wants to open a store in Sunland-Tujunga in a way that would avoid an environmental review.
The Las Lomas Land Co., which is trying to build 5,500 homes just north of Sylmar.
The Engineers and Architects Assn., a city union that had been in a contentious standoff with the mayor over pay.
First Transit Inc., a city DASH bus service provider, which was seeking a contract change.
Alatorre’s earliest known City Hall client, in 2004, was the Los Angeles Port Police Assn., which represents peace officers at the harbor. Alatorre worked for the union when its members sought to improve their retirement benefits by switching from a general city plan to one used by Los Angeles’ police and fire departments. The switch required City Council and voter approval, both of which were obtained.
Association President Daniel Cobos said his union paid Alatorre $7,500 per quarter for about a year and a half to lobby the City Council and state government. “Because of his lobbying we did get the support of the City Council,” Cobos said.
The Ethics Commission law in effect then defined a lobbyist as anyone who was paid more than $4,000 per quarter to communicate with an official on behalf of a client. The union’s payments alone might have required Alatorre to register with the city.
Since then, the law has changed. It now requires registration by anyone who is paid, regardless of how much, to lobby for at least 30 hours in a three-month period and has at least one lobbying contact with a city official or employee.
Alatorre’s contacts with city officials continued in 2006, when he met separately with two of Villaraigosa’s airport commissioners on behalf of Cable News Network. The company wants to install TVs tuned to CNN in airport waiting areas. He also spoke with one of those officials on behalf of Prime Time Shuttle, which provides shuttle services to airports.
By January 2007, he was representing California Cartage Co., which wants the city to help it acquire land that would probably involve the expansion of a redevelopment zone in the community of Wilmington.
Lobbyist Barna Szabo said in an interview that he recently recommended Alatorre to the company, which repackages goods for shipment at the Los Angeles harbor.
Szabo, who also represents the company, said he suggested Alatorre because the former councilman has a good grasp of redevelopment and eminent domain law and extensive relationships with city officials.
“He’s very familiar with the council members,” Szabo said. “He obviously works closely with the mayor.”
Alatorre also knows S. David Freeman, Villaraigosa’s appointee as Harbor Commission president, Szabo noted. Freeman employed Alatorre at the suggestion of former Mayor Richard Riordan when Freeman was DWP general manager. Freeman announced at Harbor Commission meetings in January and February that Alatorre had lobbied him on California Cartage’s behalf.
At some point in the last year, Alatorre also met with Ron Deaton, the DWP’s current general manager, on behalf of NTI Group, a company selling a communications system, according to a DWP spokesperson.
Villaraigosa-appointed board members of the Community Redevelopment Agency, meanwhile, say Alatorre lobbied at least one of them in August on behalf of Amerland Group, a developer of affordable housing. The board subsequently voted to give Amerland access to $8 million in public grants and loans.
Other Alatorre clients have been disclosed in reports filed with the Ethics Commission by the registered lobbying firm of an old friend, former legislator Mike Roos. However, the Roos records list Alatorre as a “consultant,” suggesting that he provided advice but had no contact with officials that might constitute lobbying. City rules require that individual lobbyists register even if they work in a firm that is registered
In the first half of this year, Roos’ lobbying firm reported paying Alatorre $73,000 for consulting work regarding CNN and:
Bell Cab, which, Roos reported, is trying to “maintain and improve” its relationship with the city;
URS Corp., which has the contract to plan an expanded LA/Palmdale Regional Airport;
Delta Airlines, which is fighting a plan that could force it to share its Los Angeles International Airport terminal;
Five-Star Parking, which has had an airport parking lot contract.
Records show that Roos paid Alatorre about $100,000 for consulting work for most of the same clients in 2006. Some of it was for a separate client that Alatorre shared with Roos consultant Frank Hill, a former Assemblyman convicted in 1994 of extortion for taking $2,500 in cash from an FBI agent posing as a businessman.
Alatorre’s smarts and staying power over the years earned him reverential treatment by some he is now seeking to influence. Councilman Alarcon calls Alatorre “a strategic master.” Villaraigosa has characterized him as both mentor and friend.
Their bond cemented in 1994 when the mayor’s then-fledgling political career was under attack. Villaraigosa had left his wife and taken off with another woman on the night he won a primary election for the Assembly.
The action stunned and angered supporters, including Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who condemned him for cheating on his wife while she was battling thyroid cancer. But Alatorre, who had not even endorsed Villaraigosa, was among the first to tell him he would stand at his side, associates of both men said.
Alatorre’s elective life ended five years later, when he decided not to seek reelection while under personal and professional clouds. A longtime political rival was suing him for custody of his wife’s niece, a child the Alatorres had taken in when her mother died. The rival, Henry Lozano, was the child’s father.
In the lawsuit, Alatorre admitted to past alcohol and cocaine addictions. A drug test ordered by the judge showed recent cocaine use. The judge said Alatorre’s credibility was shredded but ultimately left the child in the Alatorres’ care.
At the same time, federal authorities suspected Alatorre of extorting cash from the owner of a low-income apartment complex in Boyle Heights. The businessman, Samuel Mevorach, told the FBI he feared that if he did not pay up, Alatorre might have him cited for building code violations.
According to a search warrant affidavit, Mevorach would meet with Alatorre and a childhood friend at a restaurant, then pass them an envelope of cash. According to the affidavit, Alatorre also accepted a $13,000 new roof for his house from the East Los Angeles Community Union while it had a $2-million city loan for a development in his district.
Ultimately, Alatorre pleaded guilty in 2001 to income tax evasion for failing to report more than $40,000 in payments from people trying to influence him in tax year 1996. He was sentenced to eight months of home detention.
Even then, he retained supporters. Former state Senate leader John Burton got Alatorre a $114,000-a-year job on the state Unemployment Compensation Appeals Board. Then-Mayor Riordan helped him get hired at the DWP as a $7,500-a-month consultant.
“People were very forgiving,” said Joe Cerrell, one of the deans of City Hall’s registered lobbyists.
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Background: Born and raised in East Los Angeles; student body president, Garfield High School; bachelor’s degree, Cal State L.A.; master’s in public administration, USC; taught sociology at college level; regional director, NAACP Legal Defense Fund; field representative for Assemblyman Walter Karabian.
Political rise: Won election to the Assembly on his second try in 1972. Became member of Speaker Willie Brown’s inner circle; oversaw the 1982 redistricting that led to increased political representation for Latinos; left in 1985 for Los Angeles City Council, where he served 14 years, also redrawing boundaries to create what was then a second Latino seat. First chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Political fall: Dogged by a series of reports of ethics violations, Alatorre became the subject of a federal corruption probe in the late-1990s. Did not seek reelection in 1999. Investigation resulted in his pleading guilty in 2001 to felony charge of income tax evasion involving failure to report cash from people trying to influence him. Served eight months of home detention.
Source: Times reporting