A lobbyist’s secret gift to a councilwoman prompts El Monte to consider new ethics rules
Calling for reforms in government accountability, the El Monte City Council has launched an effort to create an ethics commission that would sanction city officials who violate rules on accepting expensive gifts and other conflicts of interest.
The action last week followed a Times article that detailed how Councilwoman Victoria Martinez Muela accepted financial assistance from a lobbyist to help pay for her breast augmentation surgery. The lobbyist, Sigrid Lopez, said in a sworn declaration that she paid $1,100 to a Pasadena cosmetic surgeon in late 2016 to help cover the cost of the procedure.
Martinez Muela didn’t disclose the payment as a gift or loan on her financial interests disclosure form, which council members and other city officials are required to file under state law. At the time, state law limited gifts to public officials to $460 from any single source.
In May, former Mayor Andre Quintero submitted a complaint to the district attorney’s office alleging the payment may have violated the legal gift limit and wasn’t properly disclosed. Lopez’s declaration was attached to the complaint. Quintero, who was defeated in his reelection bid last year, had been aligned with a faction on the council that clashed with Martinez Muela and current Mayor Jessica Ancona over several issues, including whether to allow retail sales of cannabis in the city.
At a special meeting Thursday night, Councilwoman Maria Morales said the revelation of the payment damaged public trust in El Monte city government.
A complaint alleges a city councilwoman did not report that her lobbyist friend helped to pay for her breast augmentation surgery
Morales noted that lobbyists and consultants working for city contractors currently don’t have to register, leaving the public in the dark about who is trying to influence city leaders.
“I think it’s important to know who’s coming through our doors,” Morales said. “Clearly there’s a system that needs to be fixed.”
The council voted 3 to 0 to ask city staffers to come up with proposals for an ethics commission and a lobbyist registry. The council will discuss the ideas at a meeting Tuesday and also decide whether to sanction Martinez Muela by removing her from committee assignments and stripping her of the mayor pro tem title, a largely ceremonial designation that allows her to chair meetings in the mayor’s absence.
Initially, Martinez Muela chaired Thursday’s meeting remotely. But she said she was feeling ill, and about midway through the meeting it became clear she was no longer present. She didn’t respond to the council majority’s proposals and wasn’t present to vote on them. Ancona, the mayor, was also absent.
Reached by The Times, Martinez Muela declined to comment on the council’s decision. In previous interviews, she didn’t deny accepting the financial assistance from Lopez but said she did nothing wrong. She said Quintero’s complaint to the district attorney’s office was an attempt to distract from her raising alarms over a possible conflict of interest in a city security contract and alleged cheating in the awarding of cannabis retail store licenses. She has also been calling for a state audit of the city.
The district attorney’s office has said it is reviewing Quintero’s complaint.
Martinez Muela and Lopez both told The Times that they had been close friends and that the payment had nothing to do with city business.
Martinez Muela requested help to pay for the surgery the week before Christmas 2016, Lopez said. Martinez Muela said the procedure was to address a medical condition but declined to elaborate.
At the time, Lopez was a lobbyist for Southland Transit, which was seeking extensions to its bus and dial-a-ride contracts with the city.
In 2017, Lopez said, she was hired by a cannabis company to lobby for a city proposal that would allow cultivation, manufacturing and distribution of cannabis in El Monte. She said she asked Martinez Muela to support the measure over lunch at an Italian restaurant. Martinez Muela later that year joined a majority vote to approve the proposal.
But the friendship fell apart as cannabis became an increasingly controversial issue in the city, and the council was deciding whether to allow cannabis sales at retail storefronts. Residents, including those from other San Gabriel Valley cities, were flooding the council chambers in opposition.
Lopez said she helped organize a coalition in support of retail sales. In 2019, the council voted 3 to 2 to approve cannabis storefronts. Martinez Muela was one of the two dissenters, and she described the coalition as “outsiders” in a social media post.
Lopez said she felt insulted and betrayed.
Companies that lost in the competition for the city’s cannabis retail licenses have alleged in a lawsuit that the scoring process for the licenses was tainted in a pay-to-play scheme.
Lopez, who no longer works as a lobbyist and has become a full-time cannabis entrepreneur, was the biggest winner, securing two of the six licenses available.
She said she signed the sworn declaration in anticipation that she would be deposed in the pending lawsuit and asked about financial ties to city officials. The declaration said she’s provided no “monies or other monetary assistance” to any other El Monte council member.
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