Even by the standards of politics in Southeast Los Angeles County, where investigations of politicians are common, Bell Gardens City Councilman Mario Beltran seemed particularly adept at finding himself in the cross hairs of detectives, prosecutors and even federal agents.
For the last 2 1/2 years, the 31-year-old politician had seemed to skate on the edge: In 2006, Beltran was found unconscious on the floor of a downtown L.A. hotel frequented by prostitutes. He was later convicted of filing a false police report about what happened and how he came to lose his council badge and wallet.
Then last year he was investigated on suspicion of steering a $5-million automobile towing contract to a company connected to an old friend. Beltran was not charged, but the owner of the company now faces charges of making criminal threats against a political rival of the councilman.
On Friday, the Bell Gardens politician pleaded guilty to three counts of failing to file campaign disclosure forms and one count of failing to deposit cash contributions. The charges are misdemeanors, but as part of his plea bargain Beltran agreed to relinquish his City Council seat before his sentencing, and he cannot run for office or be appointed to office for four years. He also cannot do any political lobbying for four years.
L.A. Deputy Dist. Atty. Max Huntsman said Beltran held two fundraisers supposedly to raise money for a political campaign. But, in fact, he needed cash to pay for his defense in the false police report case. The prosecutor said taking Beltran out of action for four years should save residents of Bell Gardens some political anxiety and save taxpayers money.
“Certainly there’s been a lot of taxpayer money spent dealing with fallout from things he’s done,” Huntsman said. “More importantly, he’s removed as a decision maker. Four years from now, knowing who Mario Beltran is, if the public wants to elect him, then at least they’re informed.”
One of Beltran’s attorneys in the case, Antonio Rodriguez, said the deal showed that his client “accepts responsibility for the things he did.” He called Beltran a “good servant” and said the deal was made so that he would not be exposed to felony charges.
“He’s feeling bad. You know, he’s a good person,” Rodriguez said. “He did some things other politicians also do. Not that that’s right.”
The same sentiment was echoed in defense of another convicted politician in nearby South Gate. Before City Councilman Albert Robles was sentenced to 10 years for plundering more than $20 million from the small working-class city two years ago, his defense attorney argued that what Robles did was just the way things were done in California politics.
“What you have just said is among the most absurd things I have ever heard,” federal Judge Stephen V. Wilson responded at the time.
Beltran’s conviction was just the latest black eye for a city in Southeast L.A. County. In recent years, officials in Maywood, Carson, South Gate and Vernon have been the subjects of investigations and criminal charges.
Huntsman said Beltran’s recent troubles began with a drunken night at the Huntington Hotel on Main Street in L.A., between 7th and 8th streets. A security guard there testified that the councilman had passed out on the second floor and that he had to nudge him awake with his shoe. Later, the guard testified that two men showed up at the hotel, knocking on residents’ doors and offering money for help finding the councilman’s wallet and city badge.
The guard testified that one of the men threatened a resident, telling him, “I can have 150 cops come up here and raid this whole hotel. We can . . . take all you guys down.”
Beltran later told police that he was robbed of his wallet and city badge by a group of black men on the street, about a block from the hotel. The councilman was eventually convicted of making a false police report and sentenced to three years’ probation.
Last year, L.A. police investigated whether Beltran steered a $5-million towing contract to the United Motor Club in South Gate. Investigators also served search warrants at Beltran’s home and at City Hall in connection with an investigation into alleged criminal threats against Daniel Crespo, another Bell Gardens councilman.
The owner of the towing company faces charges for allegedly threatening Crespo. Huntsman said that Beltran was not charged with crimes related to the towing contract or threats but that the investigation turned up evidence that Beltran did not report campaign donations.
Huntsman said that Beltran’s fundraisers produced about $12,000 from donors that included state Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello), the Hollywood Park Casino and the Los Angeles County Disposal Assn.
Huntsman said these donors thought they were giving money for Beltran’s reelection. Instead, the young councilman used the money to pay for his defense in the Huntington Hotel case. He did not file campaign finance reports, despite repeated requests from a city clerk who was later fired.
On Friday, Beltran was also sentenced to four years of probation. As part of the deal, prosecutors agreed to drop an investigation into a false campaign flier.
Rodriguez, his attorney, said he hoped Beltran would recover.
“He’s a young man and he’s a smart young man,” he said.
Bell Gardens Councilman Pedro Aceituno said Beltran has had more heavyweight support from Sacramento than most small-town politicians. Beltran had been a legislative aide for Calderon, who has since cut ties with him, and state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles) was one of his political mentors.
“I think he probably had a bright future ahead of him politically,” Aceituno said, noting that former state Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez had endorsed his run for City Council. “To be honest, it’s disappointing, regardless of whether you like someone or dislike someone.”
Huntsman said it would have been good to have been able to send Beltran to prison. But he said keeping him from public office for at least four years was also a victory.
“I think our primary mission when we find corrupt politicians is to remove them from office,” Huntsman said. “Corrupt politicians are a horrible danger in the best of times.”