A Los Angeles County investigation into possible corruption in Maywood has set its sights on a broad swath that includes four current and former council members, 13 companies, five current and former city administrators and one activist who dresses up as a clown.
Investigators were authorized to search nearly two dozen vehicles, according to a search warrant obtained by the Los Angeles Times. Investigators also descended on City Hall, the homes of council members and a city contractor’s office, seizing computers, videos and boxes containing documents ranging from personal bank statements to City Council agendas, a spokesperson with the district attorney’s office confirmed.
The warrant suggests the wide-ranging investigation dovetails with the suspicion many Maywood residents have had about politics in the city for years.
It shows that prosecutors are looking at political recall efforts from 2015 through 2017, a city maintenance contractor and a deal involving city properties and plans for a 24-hour charitable bingo.
A percentage of the profits from the planned bingo, according to emails obtained by The Times, was slated to go to a nonprofit organization owned by Edwin T. Snell, an activist who shows up at City Hall meetings in a clown outfit.
Maywood is one of Southern California’s smallest and most densely packed cities — 1.18 square miles with nearly 30,000 people squeezed into an industrial zone south of downtown Los Angeles.
But for its tiny size, Maywood has suffered oversized problems for more than a decade. Seemingly always on the brink of financial collapse, the town played a role in a huge corruption investigation in neighboring Bell.
Maywood officials had hired Bell to manage key city functions, an arrangement that fell apart when that city became entangled in a scandal involving over-the-top salaries for council members and city administrators.
Maywood once had a police department that became a haven for many cops who had been forced out of previous jobs or had brushes with the law. A 16-month investigation by the attorney general revealed that the culture at the department was “permeated with sexual innuendo, harassment, vulgarity, discourtesy to members of the public as well as among officers, and a lack of cultural, racial and ethnic sensitivity and respect.”
Two years ago, a state audit found Maywood was more than $15 million in debt and owed money to its creditors. The City Council raised ire by hiring a city manager whom the mayor met through his auto mechanic shop and who had no government experience.
“What’s happened in Maywood is like a battle between the forces of today and yesterday,” said Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount), whose district includes Maywood. “It’s like a zombie coming out of the grave that just won’t die.”
Southeast Los Angeles County cities, including Maywood, have been mired in municipal corruption for decades. The collection of small cities along the 710 Freeway — Vernon, Bell, Huntington Park, Cudahy — have faced generations of political upheaval, with prosecutors claiming politicians take advantage of electorates who are not always plugged in to what’s going on.
Despite having arguably the most consistently tumultuous City Hall in the area, Maywood officials have rarely found themselves facing criminal charges, at least for political malfeasance.
“If folks are eventually arrested, that will be six of the nine cities that I represent that have had former council members in prison,” Rendon said. “Six of the nine, which tells us something about the depth of the problems.”
A spokesman for the district attorney’s office could not comment on the ongoing investigation in Maywood. But sources familiar with the investigation told The Times that one aspect of the inquiry involves votes made by elected officials that could pose conflicts of interest.
In an odd twist, when investigators showed up at the city to serve multiple search warrants more than two weeks ago, investigators discovered about 40 roosters nestled in the corner of Mayor Ramon Medina’s mechanic shop. They called animal control to take the birds away.
Medina said his 20-year-old son raised roosters.
The same day, photos emerged of marijuana plants growing at his auto shop. Investigators found no plants when they searched the business. The mayor said his son had been growing the plants and that he asked him to remove them.
Roosters and marijuana plants were not mentioned in the search warrant, and there is no apparent link with the birds or the pot to the investigation.
A week after the raids, angry residents packed into City Hall to chastise the council members. Resident Lilia Mariscal, 63, didn’t speak but held a sign that read, “You Bring Maywood Shame.”
“Nothing is going to change here,” said 75-year-old Salvador Romero. “I want to know what’s going on. Is it corruption?”
Rendon said a lack of civic engagement and low voter turnouts, as well as dwindling media outlets to keep watch over elected officials, have contributed to some of the problems in cities like Maywood. The city has a large population of Latino immigrants, many of whom can’t vote.
In addition to the mayor, other officials named in the search warrant include Maywood City Atty. Michael Montgomery, Building and Planning Director David Mango and Reuben Martinez, the acting city manager.
Also listed are Vice Mayor Ricardo Villarreal and Sergio Calderon, a former councilman who resigned in January to settle a conflict-of-interest lawsuit filed by county prosecutors.
Among the companies listed on the warrant is ECM Group Inc., which was the subject of a federal corruption probe in South El Monte that ended with the criminal conviction of that city’s mayor in 2016.
The city of Maywood hired ECM Group that same year, despite repeated warnings from Councilman Eduardo De La Riva, who said that the firm’s contract in South El Monte had ended because of questionable billing practices.
The month after Maywood hired the firm, South El Monte released an audit that accused ECM of submitting false time sheets and billing reports to the city. The audit said workers were reporting 27-hour workdays.
Also named in the warrant is V&M Iron Works, the city’s maintenance contractor, which has made close to $1 million in a year, according to city records.
The latest investigation raises a larger question about how Maywood can turn itself around.
In 2016, the state auditor found that Maywood had a “flawed governance and fiscal mismanagement” that prevented Maywood from recovering its financial health and made it susceptible to corruption.
“The city council has made wasteful spending decisions that advanced the council members’ personal interests to the detriment of Maywood’s residents,” the auditor’s report said.
The problems at City Hall frustrate and embarrass residents, many of whom said they are not sure how to change things.
Maywood is 98% Latino, and 46% of the city’s residents are foreign-born. It garnered national headlines a decade ago when it was one of the first in the country to declare itself a “sanctuary city” for those here illegally. Many residents are proud of this distinction and note that many other cities have since followed Maywood’s lead.
The city also received positive notoriety for supporting immigrant youth arts and culture, including a music festival.
“Part of the reason why we can’t get rid of these bad politicians is because they have a grip on the city and they have that grip because no one has gone down for wrongdoing,” De La Riva said. “If the district attorney does come and finds wrongdoing and files charges, then I think it will help the city get rid of opportunists who get on the council for the wrong reasons.”
De La Riva said ultimately, the citizens need to show up, demand better leaders and hold them accountable.
“I think people need to understand that they can change things and that they need to stop accepting things as they are,” he said. “The power lies with them.”
Los Angeles Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.