Advertisement
Share

This tiny California city has been rocked by corruption scandals. Will charges bring change?

Agents carry boxes out of an auto shop as the owner looks on
Then-Maywood Mayor Ramon Medina watches investigators with the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office remove computers and boxes of files from his auto shop in 2018.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Ramon Medina spent eight years achieving his small-town political dream and about half of that time tarnishing it.

After winning a seat on the Maywood City Council in 2015, Medina was engulfed in scandals.

He voted on issues that raised questions of conflict of interest, including a 2016 pay raise for his sister, the city treasurer. In 2017, he was caught growing marijuana as he pushed for a cannabis ordinance at City Hall. The following year, his home and auto shop were part of an anti-corruption raid.

Undaunted, he ran for reelection in November but lost.

Advertisement

That Medina believed he had a chance of being reelected despite the controversies swirling around him might seem like a surprise. But he was a politician in one of a warren of small cities in southeast Los Angeles County where scandals have long festered — and weren’t always a knockout against political ambitions.

The tiny 1.18-square-mile city that Medina once represented had rarely played the starring role in the corruption scandals that enmeshed neighboring towns, where criminal prosecutions from local and federal authorities sometimes rained down.

Where other neighboring cities, including South Gate and Bell, embarked on reforms after high-profile arrests, Maywood did not face such a reckoning.

That might change after Medina and 10 other people were charged last month with a variety of crimes. In a complaint, prosecutors allege that Medina, who served as mayor from May 2016 to December 2018, had been at the center of a pay-to-play scheme at Maywood City Hall.

Advertisement

The 11 have been charged in a 34-count corruption complaint, alleging they misused public funds and tried to profit off affordable housing properties.

They allege that for most of his time as mayor, Medina solicited bribes, embezzled and misused public funds. He also directed staff to dismiss parking tickets that had been issued to friends and political supporters. Medina and his son, prosecutors said, also raised 40 roosters they trained for fights. None of the people charged currently work for Maywood.

Also charged were former City Manager Reuben Martinez and former City Planning Director David Mango. According to a criminal complaint, both men along with Medina attempted to sell properties designated for affordable housing at less than half their fair market value to a buyer who wanted to build a bingo hall. Prosecutors said that in return, the men asked for a cut of the profits.

When he announced the charges, Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. George Gascón said public officials should be working to benefit people, not their own bank accounts.

Advertisement

“Pay-to-play politics have no place in Los Angeles County,” he said. “And we are all deserving of a clean government.”

Maywood gained a level of notoriety in 2010 after laying off almost every city worker, disbanding the Police Department and contracting city services to neighboring Bell, where a huge salary scandal eventually broke. The spotlight careened from Maywood to Bell, which led to multiple arrests for corruption amid national attention.

“To have a neighboring city revert back to a level of corruption is jaw-dropping,” said Tom Hogen-Esch, a political science professor at Cal State Northridge who has studied corruption in southeast L.A. County. “It’s kind of a shock.”

Advertisement

Since then, Maywood has struggled as a city. It has lived off thin budgets and frail civil services. The city has few job opportunities and is dotted with fast-food chains, retail shops and factories. Four years ago, Maywood got a financial boost when it allowed cannabis businesses to operate, although at the disapproval of many residents. Political infighting, lawsuits and scandals have often pushed the city to the brink of financial collapse.

×

Two years ago, a state audit found Maywood was more than $15 million in debt

Some say the town’s instability is partly due to a lack of civic engagement and low voter turnout due to off-cycle elections, allowing candidates and council majorities to win elections with just a few hundred votes. A lack of oversight by the media and government watchdogs emboldens officials to take advantage of the electorate.

As California braces for the impact of relaxed marijuana laws that allow recreational use for adults, several small, financially strapped cities in southeast Los Angeles County and elsewhere are at the forefront of efforts to seize business opportunities — despite pushback from some residents.

Advertisement

The result can sometimes lead to the replacement of professional administrators and civil servants with loyalists, eroding the few checks and balances that exist within council-manager governments.

Hogen-Esch said all of those factors set the stage for people in power to take advantage of residents.

“It has to do with the lack of accountability,” he said. “You know, voter participation is a big part of the story.”

Maywood has a population of nearly 27,000. More than 90% are Latino and about half of them are immigrants; many are living in the country illegally.

Advertisement

Although Maywood has passed a sanctuary city ordinance to protect residents who lack legal status in the U.S., some residents — many of whom perform essential jobs — can’t make it to council meetings or are afraid of calling attention to themselves for fear of being deported.

“You’re much more vulnerable if you’re a recent immigrant or if you have members of your family who don’t have legal status,” Hogen-Esch said. “You’re much less likely to push back.”

Hector Cervantes, a Maywood resident of 30 years, said the ethical problems at City Hall turned him away from politics.

Before that, he said, he was politically engaged. He took part in campaigns and knocked on doors for candidates he believed would have a positive effect on the city.

Advertisement

“They became something else once in office,” Cervantes said. “They did what they wanted. It turned into a mafia thing, and they had little interest in helping residents.”

He tried supporting new candidates but became disappointed when controversies erupted anew at City Hall.

“Nothing was changing,” Cervantes said. “People stopped caring. People stopped going to meetings.”

In 2018, a week or so after anti-corruption raids across the city, Cervantes said he was handing out food to the needy at Riverfront Park when he saw Medina and then-Mayor Pro Tem Ricardo Villarreal walk up.

Advertisement

A Los Angeles County investigation into possible corruption in Maywood has set its sights on a broad swath that includes four current and former council members, 13 companies, five current and former city administrators and one activist who dresses up as a clown.

(Villarreal’s home and business were also the targets of raids, but he was not charged last month).

“I told them to go away,” Cervantes said. “I’m not afraid to voice my opinion and tell them what I think.”

When Medina ran for office, he did so with Sergio Calderon, a board member with the Water Replenishment District of Southern California.

Advertisement

Calderon already had a controversial past. In 2008, the district attorney filed a lawsuit to remove him from his City Council position, saying it posed a conflict of interest with his seat on the water board and was a violation of state law.

A Maywood city councilman has resigned his seat to settle a lawsuit filed by Los Angeles County prosecutors alleging that he violated state law by holding two public offices at the same time, officials said Wednesday.

Calderon resigned from the council to settle the district attorney’s suit.

But that didn’t prevent him from being reelected to the Maywood City Council — only to see him resign, again, over the same issue with the water board early in 2018.

Advertisement

Merelyn Zavala, 29, said she was bothered when Medina ran for reelection last year and more so by the fact that 1,309 people decided they wanted to reelect him.

“I’m glad he wasn’t able to win,” the longtime resident said. “People finally opened their eyes about what kind of person he was.”

She added: “It’s a slap to the face of the residents. Like, yeah: I screwed you for a couple of years and now I want to do it again.”

In 2018, Medina was convicted of animal cruelty in a case involving a pit bull mix named Hershey. But that didn’t deter him from running for office — or some people from voting for him.

Advertisement

Maywood Mayor Ramon Medina was found guilty of neglecting his sick dog that he kept at his auto repair shop in 2015, according to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.

“It seems like we only get bad things coming out of this small town,” Zavala said.

Despite the recent scandal, she and other residents feel change is on the horizon. They believe Maywood can turn around the way neighboring cities did when they got rocked by scandals.

Councilman Eduardo De La Riva, one of three officials who pushed back against some of the actions in City Hall, said that’s his hope. He said criminal charges needed to be filed in order for Maywood to make real progress.

Advertisement

“Now that that group of people has hopefully lost their grip on the city, we can finally move forward,” he said. “We can bring some much-needed change to the city.”

That doesn’t mean De La Riva has been spared from the accusations of wrongdoing that seem to fly around Maywood like sparrows. In October, ahead of the election, Jose Mendoza, owner of the cannabis testing company L.A. Labs, filed a lawsuit against De La Riva, alleging extortion and bribery.

“I can assure you it’s all nonsense, it’s groundless,” De La Riva said, adding that he couldn’t comment much on the lawsuit. “This is the ugly side of politics. Any of us can be sued at any time.”

There are early signs that a new and younger City Council is trying to enact some reforms, including pushing for more political transparency. Maywood’s website has been redone to improve the public’s access to government documents. The city has also translated its agendas into Spanish and created a Facebook account to stream City Council meetings in Spanish.

Advertisement

Maywood is a city that needs an increase in “civic engagement,” said Mayor Ricardo Lara, 35, who was elected in 2018. “I hope that what we do here paves the road for future leaders in our city to give them a guide on how to progress and make it more of a prosperous city.”

Cervantes said he’s betting on younger people to save Maywood. He’s even tried encouraging his daughter to think about participating in politics.

“The young people need to get more involved,” he said. “I find them to be more honest and sincere about what they want to do.”


Advertisement