A grand jury unsealed a 24-count felony indictment on Wednesday against Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon and his wife, Flora Montes de Oca, saying they committed perjury and voter fraud when they listed their home as being in Panorama City.
Ending a 15-month investigation by Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley’s Public Integrity Division, the criminal grand jury accused Alarcon and his wife of falsely claiming that their home was at an address in Alarcon’s 7th Council District, which takes in a portion of the northeast San Fernando Valley.
Alarcon and his wife both pleaded not guilty and were released on their own recognizance.
The case marks the first time that a sitting Los Angeles city councilman has been charged with a crime since 1997, when then-Councilman Mike Hernandez was arrested on suspicion of cocaine possession. He pleaded guilty and entered a rehabilitation program.
The indictments were revealed at a time when city government is facing dire financial woes, from layoffs to spiraling employee retirement costs. As part of that debate, Alarcon has been one of the closest allies of the public employee labor unions who are trying to fend off any further pink slips.
Prosecutors said they launched their investigation after receiving a written complaint that Alarcon was living outside his district, which takes in such neighborhoods as Sylmar and Pacoima. Alarcon listed the 1950 tract house on Nordhoff Street as his home starting in 2006, just as he was contemplating a return to the City Council after an eight-year absence.
Under the City Charter, candidates running for a seat on the City Council must reside in the district they are seeking to represent.
In January, investigators searched two homes owned by Montes de Oca, 45, including a house in Sun Valley that is outside Alarcon’s council district. That house is in a district represented by Councilman Paul Krekorian.
Alarcon, 56, said in a prepared statement that he would not let the case be a distraction and predicted that he and his wife would be acquitted of all of the charges.
“My wife and I are innocent,” he said, standing with his lawyers outside the courthouse.
In a separate written statement, Alarcon also emphasized that the charges had nothing to do with his work as a councilman. “I have not been accused of any wrongdoing in office and there has never been a moment when I did not work my hardest to represent my community, to meet its needs, and to solve its problems.”
Alarcon faces two felony counts of filing a false declaration of candidacy, once in 2006 and again in 2008. He also faces seven counts of voter fraud stemming from elections he voted in between 2007 and 2009, and nine counts of perjury — including three for allegedly filing false driver’s license applications.
Montes de Oca, who married Alarcon in 2007, has been charged with three counts of perjury and three counts of voter fraud. Prosecutors had not yet calculated the maximum penalty if the councilman is convicted of all charges, but said Alarcon could face “substantial prison time.”
If found guilty of a single count of perjury, he would be barred from serving in elected office, they said.
Only hours before he and his wife entered their pleas, Alarcon was attending the council’s regularly scheduled Wednesday meeting, providing handwritten notes to his colleagues asking them not to judge him prematurely.
“He communicated with each council member, asking us to keep an open mind,” said Councilwoman Janice Hahn, who received one of the notes. And he said “that he was going to fight this and continue to work very hard for the city of Los Angeles.”
Over the past decade, county prosecutors have filed charges against other elected officials suspected of lying about where they live. In 2002, Huntington Park Councilwoman Linda Luz Guevara was convicted of falsely claiming that she lived in the city. Jurors concluded that her true residence was a house in Downey that she shared with her husband and son. She was sentenced to 180 days in jail.
A year later, Peter Sabatino Jr., a West Covina Unified School District board member, agreed to resign and plead guilty to falsifying his residency, which prosecutors said was in Downey, a dozen miles outside the district.
Still, Cooley opted against filing criminal charges against Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Burke in 2008 after investigating allegations that she was living in a gated Brentwood home rather than in her predominantly South Los Angeles district.
In Panorama City, one resident on Nordhoff Street told The Times earlier this year that Alarcon had not lived in the house he claimed as his residence for three years. Two other neighbors made similar remarks.
Once the investigation began, Alarcon said his family was not always in the house last year because he feared for his family’s safety after a mentally ill man broke into the house and changed the locks on the doors.
That intruder, Lawrence Lydell Payton, came back to Alarcon’s house in March and broke in a second time. He was arrested by police on suspicion of burglary.
In targeting a sitting member of the Los Angeles City Council, Cooley is taking on one of the highest-level politicians since he vowed to root out public corruption after his election in 2000.
Former Compton Mayor Omar Bradley was found guilty of misappropriating public funds in 2004. Former Los Angeles City Councilman Martin Ludlow pleaded guilty in 2006 to conspiring to illegally funnel union funds into his 2003 election campaign. And in 2008, longtime Los Angeles city commissioner Leland Wong was convicted of bribery, conflict of interest and other charges.
Bob Stern, president of the watchdog group Center for Governmental Studies, said Cooley deserved credit for having the political courage to go after other elected officials.
“It’s very rare that this happens,” Stern said. “Most D.A.s don’t go after political corruption, and he’s had a long history of doing that.”