Fugitive in Coliseum corruption case says he was whistle-blower
A fugitive in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum corruption case says that for years he alerted his superiors to alleged criminal wrongdoing at the stadium, but they did nothing.
In telephone and Skype interviews with The Times, former Coliseum contractor Tony Estrada, who has been charged with embezzlement and conspiracy, said a culture of self-dealing and fraud thrived at the taxpayer-owned stadium for more than a decade.
“I did the right thing,” Estrada said in one Skype session, speaking in the accent of his native Cuba. “I started providing information … [in] every area that was corrupted.”
In the video interviews, Estrada, 72, disguised himself with a ski mask and glasses. He has been at large since he was indicted in March along with three former Coliseum managers and two rave concert promoters.
Estrada regards himself as a whistle-blower — and some Coliseum officials described him that way in the past — because he came forward to tell a government lawyer and an outside investigator about alleged kickbacks he paid to former stadium General Manager Patrick Lynch and about other purported misconduct by stadium employees. Those payments are the basis of the charges against Estrada, who said Lynch pressured him for money as a condition of keeping his janitorial contract.
The indictment of Estrada, Lynch and the others followed a yearlong district attorney’s investigation triggered by Times reports on financial irregularities at the Coliseum. According to prosecutors, bribery and kickback schemes cost the stadium — home to USC football and two Summer Olympics — more than $2 million. The stadium is now nearly insolvent. The alleged pilfering occurred on the watch of a government commission made up of city, county and state appointees.
Estrada said he left the United States before he was charged and has no intention of returning. He said he has been “moving around” Latin America.
He said that starting in 1999, he repeatedly told Lynch that managers and other employees were falsifying payroll records, stealing supplies such as bulk quantities of paint and performing outside work for personal benefit while on Coliseum time. None of those allegations is in the indictment.
Estrada said he also urged Lynch to look into steep discounts the Coliseum gave the rave promoters, such as not being charged for parking, locker rooms, press boxes and damage to stadium property.
Lynch listened sympathetically to his complaints, Estrada said, but took no steps to investigate. Lynch responded that the venue’s events manager was trying to help his promoter friends, Estrada recalled.
Estrada said he shared some of his allegations with other managers, and they also did not act.
Lynch’s attorney, Tony Capozzola, said Estrada’s statements were false. “Mr. Lynch denies anything this guy says,” Capozzola said.
Lynch has avoided a possible prison sentence by pleading guilty to conflict of interest and paying the Coliseum $385,000 he received from Estrada in what the prosecution says was a series of kickbacks.
Estrada said he also complained to Lynch of rampant drug use he witnessed at raves at the Coliseum and adjacent Sports Arena years before 15-year-old Sasha Rodriguez died in June 2010, after attending the Electric Daisy Carnival, where she overdosed on the drug Ecstasy. The commission has not allowed raves at the venues since early last year.
“Every time that we had a rave dance … it was criminal to see these young kids,” Estrada said, speaking from a location he identified as Boa Vista, Brazil, his back to a computer screen, telephone and printer. “They’re doped, they’re laying on the floor.”
Some were “not moving at all, just like they’re dead,” he said.
Estrada said he took his allegations of corruption to a member of the Coliseum Commission in July 2010. He said he told the commission’s then-vice president, David Israel, that the Coliseum’s events manager was improperly using stadium crews to perform work at his home.
The events manager, Todd DeStefano, booked and oversaw the rave concerts and is charged with taking bribes from the promoters in exchange for keeping their concert costs low. He is also awaiting trial on related embezzlement, conflict of interest and conspiracy counts in connection with about $2 million he received from the rave promoters, Pasquale Rotella and Reza Gerami, who face similar charges.
DeStefano and the promoters have pleaded not guilty. DeStefano, who left his Coliseum job in January 2011, has not been charged with any offenses relating to work at his home. Through his attorney, DeStefano declined to comment on Estrada’s allegations about the house.
Also under indictment is former Coliseum technology manager Leopold Caudillo Jr., who has pleaded not guilty to conflict of interest for allegedly directing stadium work to a firm he controlled.
Israel has said that he referred Estrada to the Coliseum’s attorney, Donovan Main. In November 2010, Main arranged to have Estrada questioned by a private attorney the stadium hired, Estrada said. He said he first threatened to take his story to the news media.
Meanwhile, based on information from other sources, The Times was investigating financial practices by DeStefano and the rave promoters and published its first report about them in February 2011. The next month, the commission turned over a report by the private lawyer to the district attorney’s office. About eight months had elapsed since Estrada approached Israel.
An attorney for Israel, who announced his resignation from the commission last month, said in a letter to The Times that his client “promptly” informed Main of Estrada’s allegations and “had no knowledge of the investigation’s details or progress” after that. The entertainment lawyer, Martin Singer, also wrote that Estrada is “unreliable” and his statements are “self-serving.”
Before Estrada was indicted, Israel was among those who called him a whistle-blower.
Main said Estrada’s allegations were handled properly. He said it took time for Estrada to provide all of his information, and at that point “the matter was thoroughly investigated.” Main said he did not recall Estrada’s threat to contact the media.
The prosecutor in the case, Max Huntsman, has said that he does not consider Estrada a whistle-blower because of the payments he made to Lynch. Most of the money was sent to a Miami bank account over a period of several years.
“It’s never wise to pay kickbacks to public officials and then complain when they don’t stay bought,” Huntsman said.
Estrada lashed out at Huntsman for prosecuting him.
“I blow the whistle, and I would do it again if I have to,” he said.
Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.
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