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California

Cudahy officials guilty, but reformer finds no vindication

Luis Garcia was convinced crooks were running his town.

For years, he had been telling anyone who would listen — the police, the district attorney, even the FBI — that corruption was running wild in Cudahy, one of the small working-class cities that sit in the shadow of Los Angeles.

So he decided to run for City Council and take things into his own hands.

The response stunned him. Bricks were thrown through his windows, paint was splattered on his truck four times — each a different color — and a Molotov cocktail was tossed at his house.

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When nothing came of his complaints, he filed public records requests with the city, asking for documents that he hoped would expose wrongdoing. When his requests were ignored, he sent a letter to each member of the City Council, the city attorney and the city manager.

No one replied.

Now, Garcia’s suspicions have been confirmed with the quick convictions of three city leaders who were arrested over the summer by the FBI, exposing a pattern of corruption that included bribery, election fixing, extortion, cash passed in shoe boxes and drug use in City Hall.

But Garcia does not feel vindicated.

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The ongoing federal corruption investigation in Cudahy had nothing to do with Garcia’s complaints. Instead, it was set in motion by the owner of a medical marijuana dispensary who said he was shaken down for bribes, first in Santa Fe Springs and then in Cudahy.

“Am I angry?” he asked. “How can I not be? The system didn’t work for me.”

Born in Sinaloa, Mexico, Garcia came to the U.S. when he was 8 and grew up in Cudahy. One of his enduring memories is sitting in 10th-grade history class at Bell High when Miss Cook asked students what America meant to them.

Garcia’s hand shot up. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” he said.

“I knew the core American values and that why people immigrated here was the rights people have,” said Garcia, 45. “Me being born in another country, it’s why we’re the beacon of hope to everyone around the world.”

While attending Cal State Dominguez Hills and Long Beach City College, Garcia worked summers in Cudahy’s maintenance department, later taking a full-time position. In 2000, the district attorney investigated the City Council’s appointment of council member George Perez as city manager. Along with other employees, Garcia was called before the grand jury to testify about the appointment. No charges were ever filed.

When Garcia quit in 2006, he was superintendent of parks, streets and buildings, working under Perales, one of the three officials who were arrested. Garcia now works as a public works construction inspector at Long Beach Airport.

From his vantage point as a resident and employee, Garcia said he witnessed the city disintegrating. Youth programs were falling apart, code enforcement appeared to be a tool for keeping people in line and City Hall operated on a closed-door policy.

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The next year, he ran for City Council, teaming up with reform candidates Danny Cota and Tony Mendoza.

“The choices are clear,” Garcia reflected six years later. “Either stand up to them or shut up and continue to be a victim. I just knew something was wrong and I wasn’t going to be a victim.”

All three candidates said they were harassed during the campaign. Mendoza, the owner of a trucking business, dropped out after receiving a death threat. He said the FBI told him the call came from City Hall. Paint was splashed on Garcia’s white pickup four times. Paint was also thrown onto Cota’s car.

Garcia lost by 33 votes. “I told Danny jokingly, ‘They almost didn’t steal enough votes,’ ” he said.

He had no idea how right he was. According to documents the U.S. attorney released after the arrests, Perales and Perez opened envelopes containing absentee ballots and threw out those not supporting their candidates.

Without their help, incumbent Osvaldo Conde would have lost by 120 votes, Perales said in a surreptitiously taped conversation.

Garcia and Cota had come so close that in July 2008 they announced they were going to run again. The harassment started anew.

Garcia said he was sitting on the living room couch, watching TV and dozing, when he heard something smack against the house. “I open the front door, and I see flames engulfing my wife’s Dodge Dakota pickup,” he said.

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He grabbed the hose and put it out. The Molotov cocktail had bounced off the house and rolled under the truck.

“That was the first time I questioned whether it was worth it going forward,” Garcia said. “Incredibly, my wife’s reaction really surprised me. She wouldn’t let me out of the race.”

There’s still a dent in the window frame where a brick hit and dark spots in the driveway from the Molotov cocktail. Garcia copied the license plate of a car that drove off after the brick was tossed. He passed it on to police, but nothing came of it.

“All these attacks worried me,” said Patricia Garcia, his wife. “I told my husband we’re either going to have a lot of therapy bills or our sons will be strong young men seeing their dad working toward something he really believes in and fights for it.”

During the campaign, fliers blanketed the city, accusing Garcia and Cota of being pawns of developers and breaking the law.

“Keep bugs off our City Council,” one flier said.

Garcia lost by 243 votes."We gave the community two chances to elect us,” Garcia said, laughing. “They probably did.”

Meanwhile, his frustration with law enforcement mounted. Garcia said the FBI contacted him after the Molotov cocktail incident and he spoke to agents six to eight times. He still has a recording of the phone messages agents left for him.

“If I worked like the FBI did, I’d be fired,” he said.

Now, he says, agents tell him, “We should have believed you.”

The FBI declined to comment.

Garcia sent sometimes angry email to David Demerjian, head of the Los Angeles County district attorney’s Public Integrity Unit, which investigates political corruption.

“I think it all could have been avoided if they had a real ability to investigate,” Garcia said.

The problem was that Garcia never offered specifics, Demerjian said.

“I don’t go in and investigate cities. I investigate crimes,” he said.

An email to the state attorney general resulted in a reply telling Garcia to talk to the police chief.

An arson investigation by the Los Angeles County Fire Department went nowhere.

Although Garcia has been vindicated, his anger spills out, with special venom reserved for the three remaining council members, each of whom ran with Conde or Silva, and, according to the conversations the FBI informant recorded, were chosen by Perez because they were so easy to manipulate.

When Conde and Silva resigned, Garcia was an obvious candidate to be appointed to the council, but he didn’t apply.

“I refuse to be sitting down with people who will never have the best interest of the city at hand,” he said. The three guys now say they didn’t know what was going on. Everyone in Cudahy knew something was going on. If they didn’t, it’s shameful and embarrassing.”

Councilman Josue Barrios lives two houses away from Garcia. “He has every reason to be upset, and I don’t blame him,” Barrios said

Despite the obstacles, Garcia said he never thought of tossing in the towel.

“If I gave up, I’d be selling people like Miss Cook short,” he said. “They wanted to break my spirit, and they couldn’t do it. I’m still here.”

jeff.gottlieb@latimes.com


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