Three years ago, Leonis Malburg stood in the council chamber of the city of Vernon as his fellow council members passed a resolution honoring the mayor for 50 years in office. Beaming, Malburg bragged about surpassing the long political run of the city’s founder, his grandfather.
“I got my 50 years now, and I survived, health-wise and otherwise,” he said. “And I beat my dear grandfather, John Leonis, who had 45 years in the city . . . by five years.”
But now it appears that one family’s nearly century-long dominance of the small industrial town south of downtown L.A. has come to an end. The 80-year-old Malburg is being forced to confront a lawsuit filed against him by the city.
The city alleges that Malburg improperly had Vernon pay nearly $1.5 million for his legal defense against criminal voter fraud charges leveled against him two years ago by L.A. County prosecutors. Vernon officials say they have demanded for a year that Malburg pay the money back but that he has refused.
The lawsuit represents a steep fall from grace for Malburg, whose family name adorns a major street, a power plant and one of the city’s largest office buildings. John Leonis turned Vernon into an industrial powerhouse by the early 20th century, though he faced accusations he treated it as his fiefdom.
Supporters say Vernon is prosperous and well-run, while critics say it operates more like an insular corporation than a city.
There are only about 90 residents, most of whom work for the city and live in heavily subsidized city-owned housing. Malburg was elected to the City Council in 1956 and became mayor in 1974. He held that position for 35 years until last month. Malburg still serves as a council member.
Members of the council, who long voted in lock-step with Malburg, could not be reached for comment. The city refused to answer questions about the lawsuit, and Malburg declined to comment.
On the day that he was honored for his longevity, he and his colleagues also voted to cancel what would have been the first contested election for the council in 25 years. Months later, the courts forced the city to go ahead with the election, though Malburg and two other incumbents won handily.
But Malburg has had a rough run since. In November 2006, the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office charged him, his wife and his son with voter fraud, alleging that they did not live in Vernon.
During a search, investigators uncovered evidence that Malburg’s son had sexually abused children. John Malburg pleaded guilty to molesting one boy and filming another one, and was sentenced to eight years in prison.
The 40-year-old subsequently pleaded no contest to the voter fraud charges. The former mayor’s trial in the voter fraud case could start this fall.
Bruce V. Malkenhorst, the former city administrator of the town whose slogan is “Exclusively Industrial,” also faces criminal charges -- in his case, of embezzlement. Despite his indictment, Malkenhorst boasts a state pension of about $500,000 a year.
In the suit against Malburg, the city says it has paid his and other city officials’ legal costs in the past, but only in civil matters related to city business. The suit portrays the payments to Loeb & Loeb, Malburg’s attorneys, as a mistake because they involved a criminal matter.
“In approving payments of these invoices, the City Council was unaware that the bills submitted by and payments made to Loeb & Loeb were for Mr. Malburg’s defense of the pending voter fraud criminal charges,” the suit reads.
It is unclear what the city thought the payments -- one as large as $229,000 -- were for. But the suit says the council found out that Vernon was paying Malburg’s legal fees in the criminal case only in February 2008.
According to the lawsuit, his fellow council members told him after the discovery that the city would not pay for him to fight the criminal charges. Leaving his seat, Malburg walked to the public podium and asked his colleagues to pay for his legal costs, but the council refused and demanded that he pay the money back.
Some longtime Vernon watchers are skeptical that the council didn’t realize where the money was going.
“Mistakenly? That’s ridiculous,” said Eduardo Olivo, a former Vernon city attorney who clashed with city leaders. “It’s amazing to me they’re suing him.”