Four current, former Irwindale officials accused of misspending city money on lavish New York trips
Four current and former Irwindale officials, including a councilman, have been charged with spending thousands of dollars in city money on lavish business trips to New York that included outings to five-star restaurants and Broadway shows, baseball games and rounds of golf.
The four are accused of traveling to New York for up to six days at a time, allegedly to get a higher bond rating for the city, then improperly treating themselves to entertainment such as Yankee and Mets games and shows including “Phantom of the Opera” and “Mamma Mia!.”
Prosecutors alleged Wednesday that the events had nothing to do with city business. “Mostly they partied quite a bit,” said Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Nipa Cook. “When it comes to public funds there has to be a public purpose.... It wasn’t a business dinner or business lunch.”
The Times earlier this month reported that officials had spent $87 million in redevelopment funds set aside for affordable housing but little housing was built or rehabilitated. Interviews and records suggest that at least some of that money was spent to entertain city officials back East.
The total cost of five trips to New York between 2001 and 2005 was $205,678, according to documents obtained by The Times. More than $75,000 went for trips to discuss housing bonds and, according to one city official, was paid from the affordable housing fund.
Irwindale is the third city in the last few weeks in which officials or former officials have been charged with misappropriation of public funds following Times investigations into lavish pay and questionable spending. In September, prosecutors indicted eight people in Bell, and last week it was a former city administrator in Vernon.
Details of the Irwindale officials’ trips were first published in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune in 2007. That and an anonymous complaint prompted the district attorney to open an investigation. Prosecutors said it took them three years to bring charges because they had to interview many people and to confirm officials’ attendance at various New York venues.
The officials—Councilman Mark Breceda, 50; former Councilwoman Rosemary Ramirez, 49; retired City Manager Steve Blancarte, 56; and retired Finance Director Abe De Dios, 65—are scheduled to be arraigned in December. Breceda’s attorney, Anthony Falangetti, said that the allegations were old and that he believed the councilman would be exonerated.
Blancarte’s attorney, John Tyre, denied any wrongdoing by his client. He said the investigation occurred about a year ago “and nothing happened.”
“This situation in Bell occurs and now all of a sudden there are charges,” Tyre said.
Other Irwindale officials who have been charged could not immediately be reached.
According to the complaint, much of their tab was initially paid for by financial consultants who submitted the expenses for reimbursement to the city. They were not itemized or fully detailed and were not discussed by the City Council.
The itinerary for a 2003 trip to discuss housing bonds provides a more complete picture: It included fewer than eight hours of scheduled meetings over six days but cost the affordable housing fund more than $37,000 for such expenses as chauffered cars and breakfast, lunch and dinner at famous New York restaurants.
According to the itinerary, Breceda and other officials arrived Saturday and checked into the Ritz Carlton. Sunday’s agenda featured no business meetings, but did include brunch at the River Café, where the prix fixe for omelettes or poached eggs is now $55, according to the restaurant’s website. The afternoon schedule included a matinee of “Jackie Mason Laughing Room Only” followed by dinner at Atelier, a restaurant at the Ritz Carlton.
On Monday, officials met for a few hours with bankers and then lunched at Bouley Bakery and had dinner at Peter Luger Steakhouse. The next day, they met at 10 a.m. with financiers but were done in time for lunch at ritzy Le Bernardin. Their afternoon was left free, with plenty of time before going to “Phantom of the Opera.”
Among the attendees on at least one trip in May 2001 was then-City Atty. Dave Aleshire, who said he did not stay for the whole time but did recall a restaurant meal and thought he had “probably” attended a performance of “Follies” at the Belasco Theater. Aleshire was not accused of any wrongdoing.
“Had it been obvious to me that those bond trips were illegal, I would have said to the council, don’t go,” said Aleshire, who no longer works for the city although his firm still does.
He added: “The city manager enjoyed his wine, was a wine connoisseur, and I kind of feel for the council members, because I … think had they been guided better maybe there would have been a trip, but going on those multiple trips, I think that’s what [prompted] the D.A. to look at it differently.”
Asked whether it was his job to advise council members on the legality of their conduct, Aleshire said: “I picked my battles.”
“The issue of being the playground supervisor and going to all the restaurants and telling them whether they could or could not order a bottle of wine was not something I chose to get involved with,” he said.
Aleshire said the first trip was necessary because the city had lost $10 million over a failed attempt to attract the Raiders football team to the city in the 1980s and it was important for him to help calm bankers’ and bond insurers’ misgivings about the city.
Even as Irwindale officials were spending freely on trips to discuss affordable housing, residents were voicing frustration with the lack of progress in building homes for poor and moderate-income residents. In 2005, 250 people petitioned the council to build homes on land bought with affordable housing funds, said Irwindale resident Dena Zepeda, who presented the petition.
But officials chose not to build housing there, ultimately deciding that the land was more appropriate for a hot sauce factory.
The Times highlighted Irwindale in a story published earlier this month that found that cities across the state skirted or ignored laws requiring them to build affordable housing, and in the process mismanaged hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars. Irwindale built or rehabilitated only about 100 homes over the eight years ending in 2008 despite spending $87 million in taxpayer dollars.
“It’s not right,” Zepeda said. “They’re ripping off the people, the residents.”