Compton city officials could face criminal charges for paying themselves thousands of dollars a month to sit on commissions that often met for only a few minutes, a top prosecutor in the Los Angeles County district attorney's office said.
A recent D.A. letter warning the city that the payments were illegal was sent as a "preliminary step" that could lead to prosecution, Assistant Head Deputy Sean Hassett told The Times.
Prosecutors are investigating the payments made to City Council members and the mayor, according to Hassett, who wrote the letter. He declined to say whether Compton officials could avoid prosecution if they stopped accepting the payments.
The district attorney's office has successfully prosecuted officials from the cities of Bell and Lynwood for boosting their pay by sitting on similar commissions. Since charges were filed in those cases, Hassett said, the state Supreme Court has ruled that prosecutors must prove that defendants accused of misappropriating public funds either knew or should have known they were breaking the law.
"The letter [to Compton] is simply to put the council on notice that their actions are illegal," said Hassett, a supervisor in the unit that prosecutes municipal corruption.
City officials deny wrongdoing.
Compton's city attorney wrote last week to the district attorney's office arguing that the city charter does not prohibit council members or the mayor from receiving compensation from the commissions. City Atty. Craig J. Cornwell is expected to meet with Hassett on Monday to discuss the issue.
The controversy marks the latest tussle between the district attorney's office and Compton city officials.
In 2004, prosecutors convicted former Mayor Omar Bradley of misappropriating about $7,500 in public funds by using city money for personal expenses such as golf rounds, cigars and in-room movies at a hotel. A former councilman and a city manager also were found guilty of misappropriating public funds and making unauthorized loans while in office. Two other council members — including Yvonne Arceneaux, who remains on the council — were acquitted of lesser charges.
Three years ago, an appeals court reversed Bradley's conviction, citing the state Supreme Court's 2011 ruling that prosecutors must prove officials knew or should have known their conduct was illegal. The district attorney's office plans to retry Bradley, who maintains his innocence.
In the latest dispute, the district attorney's office maintains that Compton has been violating its city charter for years by paying council members and the mayor for sitting on city commissions. Hassett's letter, dated July 17, said the Housing Development Commission and the Gaming Commission paid each city official $1,000 a month but served "no obvious purpose other than providing additional compensation" to them.
The city's charter sets salaries for council members and the mayor at $600 a month. Mayor Aja Brown was paid at least $3,850 a month and council members at least $3,250 a month for the commission meetings, according to the letter.
The commissions met immediately before some City Council meetings. Hassett wrote that he believed only one commission required board members to show up to get paid.
Some of the payments date back to 1975, Hassett wrote, adding that prosecutors examined records detailing the creation of the commissions, as well as minutes from hearings since 2008.
One of Hassett's colleagues in the district attorney's office, Eric Perrodin, served as Compton mayor from 2001 to 2013. Hassett said that Perrodin's work as a prosecutor would not affect how the district attorney's office handles the investigation.
The district attorney's warning letter came five years after The Times published a 2010 investigation about the commission payments. Hassett said that it wasn't until earlier this year that his office examined the Compton city charter, after receiving a complaint, and discovered that the payments were illegal.
Compton's mayor issued a statement Friday saying that the district attorney's letter "requests that council take action. It is not a mandate."
She said she had tried to reform the way the city pays its officials but had not won support from her colleagues on the council.
"There are some people heavily invested in maintaining the status quo," Brown said in her statement.
Her proposal, introduced at a council meeting last month, would have given city voters in November the chance to cap council member salaries at the city's median household income, which was $42,953 in 2013. The mayor's salary would have been capped at twice that amount: $85,906.
Based on figures cited in the district attorney's letter, Brown collects at least $53,400 in annual pay from her salary and commission compensation; council members receive at least $46,200. The mayor's proposal did not say whether it would have eliminated an additional $650-per-month car allowance that the mayor and council members receive.
During a packed meeting on July 21, some council members said they were blindsided by Brown's proposal and had learned of the specifics only a few days before. The measure failed to pass, supported only by Brown and Councilman Isaac Galvan.
Councilwoman Janna Zurita, who voted against the measure, released a statement Friday criticizing Brown.
"What was wrong with her moral compass for the last two years?" Zurita said. "She's been accepting the same compensation she rails against — even when she didn't attend the meetings."
A spokeswoman for the mayor said Brown was on vacation and unavailable to answer reporters' questions.
In her statement, Brown said that the city charter, written decades ago, did not account for inflation when it set salaries at $600.
"In 1950," Brown said, "a mortgage in Compton was on average $100," adding that if the salaries were adjusted for inflation, council members would be making more than $70,000 a year.
Jessica Levinson, a clinical law professor at Loyola Law School who serves on the Los Angeles Ethics Commission, said Compton officials should work to change the city's charter if they want to pay themselves more.
"There are tons of laws that aren't indexed for inflation," Levinson said. "But that doesn't mean you just decide to work around them."
In Bell, the district attorney's office filed charges in 2010 alleging that council members had been paid for sitting on commissions that rarely, if ever, met. The case resulted in convictions and jail or prison time for most of the defendants.
Some former Lynwood officials were sent to prison after prosecutors successfully argued they had illegally boosted their salaries by paying themselves $450 per meeting for a pair of commissions that often met for only a couple of minutes.