During his years as Cudahy city manager, George Perez saw himself as a "man of the people," a guy who knew how to get things done.
Others saw an old-fashioned political boss.
Federal documents from an investigation four years ago painted a picture of a city out of control — a town where bribes became routine, elections were fixed and city workers acted as gun-packing bodyguards. The portrait drawn of Perez, identified as "G.P.," was harsh. Perez used drugs at City Hall, tossed out ballots to sway elections and was chauffeured to a Denny's to pick up bribes, according to an affidavit.
Three officials in the Southeast Los Angeles County town of Cudahy, including two council members, were convicted of bribery charges and sent to prison.
But Perez was never arrested.
Perez, once referred to as "Mr. Cudahy," said federal authorities never questioned him in detail about the allegations made against him. He said there were general questions about municipal elections but nothing specific. He said a federal grand jury only asked him to provide documents related to the bribery case.
Outside his Hacienda Heights home on a chilly Halloween night, Perez said of the accusations that had been leveled against him, "They're all false, and I'm not the one who went to jail."
Laura Eimiller, a spokeswoman for the FBI, said it's the agency's policy not to confirm or deny investigations.
But the FBI's release of a plea agreement that gave a relatively detailed, explicit description of what Perez had allegedly done, followed by the apparent lack of action taken against him, created a layer of mystery.
"Until the feds decide to speak of it, it's almost impossible to know," said Loyola Law School professor Laurie Levenson.
She said investigators would have had to corroborate everything an accused defendant said about Perez.
"Bringing up every misconduct is probably not enough to push an investigation," Levenson said.
In 2000, married and with four children, Perez was serving on the City Council and working for a building materials store. That year, he and others voted to repeal an ordinance that required a one-year period before former council members could be eligible for appointments.
Soon, Perez stepped down as a councilman and took up the job as city manager, which then paid $89,000 a year, even though he had no college degree or background in public administration. (He ended up being paid about $200,000 a year before his firing in 2011.)
The following year, he became the target of an investigation by the district attorney's office, which was looking into the hiring process. The probe lasted two years and involved searches at both City Hall and Perez's Cudahy home.
County prosecutors dropped the investigation because they couldn't find evidence of wrongdoing. In a memo, however, they stated "that Perez liked politics and power more than the building materials business."
Years later, prosecutors looked into allegations of illegal pay raises at Cudahy and Perez's dual roles as city manager and manager at Tract 180 Water Co., a private utility that sells water to the city.
County prosecutors ended up concluding that Perez committed no crimes for his dual roles, and on June 23, prosecutors closed the pay-raise case without filing charges.
Perez's years at the top of Cudahy's hierarchy corresponded with a period of scandal in Southeast Los Angeles County cities like South Gate, Bell and Vernon. At the center of the controversies were officials, like Perez, whom many saw as local political strongmen.
In the city of Bell, Robert Rizzo quietly oversaw an era of corruption and graft until his compensation of $1.5 million a year led to a criminal investigation. He and six other officials were convicted on a series of corruption charges.
The neighboring industrial city of Vernon had two of the region's most controversial top administrators: Bruce V. Malkenhorst, who was paid more than half a million a year and was driven around in a limousine, and Eric T. Fresch, who made $1.6 million in one year as city administrator and flew in first class from his home in the Bay Area.
Malkenhorst pleaded guilty to misappropriation of public funds in 2011. Fresch, who was never arrested or charged, accidentally drowned in 2012, Marin County officials said.
Perez never commanded the eye-popping salaries of his contemporaries, but he was known for exercising an unusual level of control in Cudahy for a city manager.
In Cudahy, Perez gained a reputation for controlling public life and operating a political machine to maintain power. He was an emcee at town hall meetings and raffled fans, heaters and other items to residents. He held Christmas toy giveaways at a local nightclub with a history of car thefts and violence. Winning elected office in the city without Perez's support was considered impossible.
But Perez said he never saw himself as a political kingpin.
"I never thought about having power," he said. "Maybe it's how I come off; maybe it's how I speak to people. I try not to beat around the bush. I know what I have to say and I do."
He said he served his city proudly, pointing to his leading a group of parents to protest against the Los Angeles Unified School District when ooze seeped from an elementary school that had been built on top of a landfill.
He entered politics to represent Latinos and other residents he said had long been neglected by City Hall. Perez said residents embraced him because of his humble roots, one of six children who grew up poor with an alcoholic father.
As city manager, Perez said he personally helped residents with problems, even if they weren't city-related. He gave some jobs to former gang members looking for a second chance. He said the raffles at town hall meetings were meant to boost civic engagement, not to curry favor with voters.
Perez said he never listened to his critics because they were often against what he thought was right and blamed him for their misfortunes.
"Everybody always wants to blame George Perez," he said. "I told myself if this what it takes to set right from wrong in Cudahy, so be it. So be it."
After the FBI descended on Cudahy, some of the accused pointed fingers at their boss. Angel Perales, a longtime city official who was convicted in the bribery case, told an FBI informant that Perez handpicked the City Council during a taped conversation in 2011.
In his plea agreement, Perales said that he and Perez abused narcotic pain drugs at City Hall. He also alleged that Perez went to illegal lengths to maintain control of the city, according to the plea agreement — something that had been claimed by critics of the city manager before the FBI ever showed up.
In 2007, Cudahy held its first contested election since 1999. The election threatened to oust some on the council that had long been allied with Perez. The council had always voted unanimously on city issues.
According to the court documents, Perales said Perez had him and others register nonresident voters. Additionally, Perales said he and Perez tossed out absentee ballots that did not favor incumbents by determining how to open ballots without defacing the envelopes. Perales said they also tampered with absentee ballots in 2009.
Luis Garcia, a former city employee who ran unsuccessfully against Perez's then-council allies, said his home was firebombed with a Molotov cocktail in 2009, which he captured on video. Other candidates received death threats or saw their cars vandalized.
No one was ever charged in the incidents.
Garcia said some people were angry that Perez never got prosecuted — convinced that he had broken the law, just like the lieutenants under him who ended up being arrested and convicted. But Garcia said he was beyond the point of anger.
"The frustration point has long been gone, and the disappointment has kicked in," he said.
That is not what Perez said he feels whenever he visits Cudahy. He said the people he runs into are glad to see him.
"I'm always greeted with handshakes and hugs," he said. "They're upset I left. They're upset about what happened after I left."
If anyone expected — and wanted — Perez to disappear from public life after the bribery case and his departure, they would be disappointed. He continues to serve as the general manager for Tract 180 Water Co., the private utility. He gets paid $98,000 a year.
Cudahy is such a part of his life that he has a tattoo of the city seal on his lower right calf.
He insists that he doesn't dwell on his firing or the FBI case anymore.
The past is the past, Perez said, though the former "Mr. Cudahy" does not sound completely convincing when talking about his portrait removed from City Hall — or the plaque thanking him for his years of service that has never been displayed.
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