Inside the sprawling brick building that houses the Oldtimers Foundation, 75-year-old Eleuteria Nuno catches up with friends as she waits for lunch.
She and her husband started coming to eat at this senior services center in Huntington Park eight years ago, after their craft supply stand at a swap meet burned down and left them without a stable income. When her husband died four years ago, the center became her main social outlet.
Without it, Nuno said, "I would be bored at home and would be depressed, because I would be there by myself."
To its mostly elderly patrons, the Oldtimers center is a place to get away from loneliness: to play cards, Bingo or dance to a cumbia song during the Friday afternoon karaoke. Children come to swim in the center's outdoor pool, and men play pool and cards in the courtyard.
It's also a place to get a hot meal. The foundation delivers food to homebound seniors and serves others at centers in 13 cities around southeast Los Angeles County. The staff cooks 1,700 meals a day.
But over the last few years, two of its leaders have been caught up in political corruption scandals, and the public relations backlash has sapped the nonprofit's ability to raise money. Now its finances are in such disarray that it is in danger of losing its $2-million-a-year contract with Los Angeles County. That could spell the end of the 50-year-old operation.
The foundation was started in 1964 by a group of retired steelworkers in San Bernardino County, initially to help seniors with home repairs. In 1977, the nonprofit expanded into southeast L.A. County, opening a senior center in South Gate and eventually setting up its headquarters in a former Elks Lodge in Huntington Park, a stately building that takes up nearly an entire block on busy Gage Avenue.
As it expanded, many people came to see the foundation as inextricable from its politically powerful longtime executive director, George Cole. A former steelworker, Cole settled in the city of Bell. Mirroring Bell's changing demographics, Cole was elected to the City Council in 1984 when it was all white. When he left the council in 2008, he was the only non-Latino member, although he spoke Spanish and had deep ties in the Latino community.
Two years later, Cole stepped down from his position at Oldtimers amid unfolding corruption revelations in Bell. He and four other former council members were eventually convicted of misappropriating public funds for drawing salaries of $100,000 for the part-time positions, while sitting on boards and commissions that rarely met and did little business. An investigation into the city's finances found that City Administrator Robert Rizzo — who was being paid $1.5 million in salary and benefits — had made unauthorized loans of city money to businesses including Oldtimers.
The organization also came under scrutiny for its contracts with the Central Basin Municipal Water District, whose board Cole sat on. In 2013, federal investigators demanded records of the foundation's contracts with the water district as part of an inquiry involving then-state Sen. Ron Calderon and his brother, Tom Calderon, who was president of the Oldtimers' board of directors. Ron Calderon was subsequently indicted on federal bribery charges and Tom Calderon on charges of money laundering. The charges were not related to the Oldtimers contacts. Both men are slated to go to trial next year.
The current leaders of Oldtimers point out that there was never any allegation that the nonprofit had misused funds intended for senior services. And they say they have tried to cut ties with the past.
"Definitely when the name comes up, there are people who give you the look," said the foundation's current executive director, Jose Solache, who is also mayor of neighboring Lynwood.
Foundation board Chairman Hugo Enciso agreed that the scandals had harmed the group's ability to solicit donations.
"There's been hesitation because of the past history of the organization," he said. "We are trying to let people know that we are here to serve the community."
In 2007, Oldtimers took in $7.7 million, including $6.7 million from government contracts, according to its public federal tax forms. In 2012, revenues had fallen by $800,000, and the organization was half a million dollars in the red.
Annual reviews by an independent auditor over the last two years questioned Oldtimers' ability to continue operating, citing ballooning deficits. And a recent county audit of the foundation's contract to provide meals to seniors found that its leaders "did not maintain sufficient working capital to meet their day-to-day financial obligations," noting that the nonprofit had about $131,000 in unpaid bills relating to the meal program that had been outstanding for more than two months. The audit also questioned how the organization had calculated the rent and utility payments it charged to the county.
The auditors recommended that the foundation be placed on a list of contractors with financial or legal issues that might preclude the county from doing business with them.
Solache acknowledged that payments to vendors were running as much as four months behind, but he said services to seniors had continued without interruption. He blamed "mismanagement" under the previous executive director, Irene Muro, who succeeded Cole before stepping down last year. In large part, he said, the problem was a handful of money-losing contracts to provide bus services for local cities. The foundation has given up three of those and renegotiated another one on more favorable terms.
He also said Oldtimers' management had been disjointed because the foundation had shared its chief executive with three nonprofit affordable housing companies.
Solache said he hopes the county will let the foundation get its books in order and carry on the contract. "At the end of the day, it's not the seniors' fault, whatever happened in the organization," he said.
Former executive director Muro denied that she had mismanaged the foundation, She said that donations had suffered because of the economy and the publicity surrounding the group's association with Cole, and that the nonprofit remained an "important safety net for the community."
Cole could not be reached for comment. His attorney, Ron Kaye, maintained that Cole had not intentionally done anything wrong and had been "caught up" in the criminal case.
"If it's had this ripple effect on the Oldtimers, that's tragic," he said.
Tom Calderon said he had not been involved in the organization for a year and a half and was unaware of its current problems.
"It's a great organization," he said. "If they're having trouble, it's because of the publicity and the way you guys tell the story."
Rafael Carbajal, a spokesman with the county's Department of Community and Senior Services, said the agency has been in talks with Oldtimers but is looking for other providers who would be able to step in if the contract ends.
"The sad part is, we've had a longtime relationship with them and they're established in the community," Carbajal said. But ultimately, he said, "We just want to make sure the constituents get served whether it's the Oldtimers or someone else."
Henry Gonzalez, a recently retired longtime South Gate councilman, survived some of the most turbulent times in southeast L.A. County politics, including scandals in his own city that led to former treasurer Albert T. Robles being sentenced to prison. He said he understood the county's concerns, but that he and others in the community would be sorry to see the foundation go under.
"That organization did a lot for the community," he said. "It really did."