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Palmdale mayor and two consultants charged in public corruption case

Palmdale mayor and two consultants charged in public corruption case
Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford in 2006. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford has been charged with illegally receiving nearly $500,000 from local consultants and failing to publicly disclose the income on economic statements, prosecutors said Wednesday.

Ledford, 63, has been charged with conspiracy and conflict of interest and three counts of perjury, according to the Los Angeles County district attorney. The two consultants, Kimberly Anne Shaw, 61, of Yorba Linda, and Susan Miller, 68, each face charges of conspiracy, embezzlement and misappropriation of public funds.

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Prosecutors allege that as part of the scheme, Palmdale paid Shaw millions of dollars and then she — through a nonprofit organization and another consultant — funneled money to the mayor.

Between Aug. 1, 2009, and May 3, 2017, Ledford received about $5,200 a month through a series of shell companies, according to the criminal complaint. The mayor received more than $483,000 during that period, authorities say.

Shaw has been a consultant for the city of Palmdale for the last 20 years and has run much of its development and aerospace operations. Shaw and Miller operate the AERO Institute, which receives more than $2 million annually from NASA.

Miller also operated a Nevada company known as Complex Culture Change Consulting and hired Ledford in 2009. Over a four-year period, AERO Institute paid the consulting firm more than $13,000 every month and in turn, Complex Consulting allegedly paid Ledford the $5,200 per month, according to court documents and records.

Prosecutors allege Ledford did not perform any substantive work for AERO Institute during his contract.

At the same time, Ledford helped Shaw receive a lucrative contract increase. In January 2012, the Palmdale City Council voted to boost Shaw's consultant contract to an amount not to exceed $3.9 million over seven years. Prosecutors allege Ledford failed to reveal that he was indirectly receiving income from AERO Institute.

In 2015, 2016 and 2017, Ledford is accused of not reporting the income he received from AERO Institute on economic disclosure statements.

Ledford could face up to four years and eight months in state prison, and Shaw and Miller could get four years in prison if they are convicted.

The longtime mayor appeared in court Wednesday, and after some wrangling between prosecutors and his attorney, bail was set by L.A. Superior Court Judge Mark Hanasono at $75,000.

Through his attorney, Anthony Falangetti, Ledford delayed entering a plea, and he will be arraigned July 26.

After the hearing, Falangetti said "these right now are accusations" that have yet to be tested in a court of law.

He added that the payments to Ledford were completely appropriate, saying, "[Ledford] got paid to do some work, and he declared who paid him."

"The city is going very well under his leadership," the attorney said.

A district attorney's spokesman said prosecutors are arranging the surrender of Miller and Shaw.

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The investigation began in 2013, and the charges come a month after members of the district attorney's Bureau of Investigations descended on six locations, including the mayor's office at Palmdale City Hall.

In the aftermath, local leaders called on the mayor to take a leave from City Hall.

Ledford has served as the city's mayor since 1992 and worked as a planning commissioner and councilman before that. In all, he has been involved in city government for more than 30 years.

A 2013 deposition of Ledford over a voter rights lawsuit exposed the financial ties.

In the 250-page deposition, Ledford was grilled by Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris, a longtime rival who was serving as an attorney for the plaintiffs. In the contentious, hours-long exchange, Parris strays from the voting rights case to repeatedly ask Ledford about his income and the nature of a job he had taken with Complex Consulting. Ledford's attorneys objected to nearly every question Parris asked about the job and often advised the mayor not to respond.

Asked to summarize his duties for Complex Consulting, Ledford said he conducted educational research that included trips to Portland, Ore., and Mountain View, Calif., where he visited a NASA research center. But Ledford often struggled to describe any work he did or reports he produced, or provide a timeline of hours he worked for the firm, according to the deposition.

"My job has been to research educational conferences," Ledford said.

Parris then asked Ledford if he had written or dictated any research memorandums, or submitted any emails to his employer about the conferences he researched. The Palmdale mayor answered "no" to each question, according to the deposition. Ledford eventually said he typed a 20-page summary of his observations during a trip to the NASA research center in Mountain View.

Last month, Miller said she spoke with officials from the district attorney's office once, about four years ago. She declined to say what they discussed. "It was privileged information," she said. "They told me to keep my mouth shut."

She said she was "not at liberty" to discuss the purpose of Complex Consulting or what Ledford was paid to do, and declined to answer additional questions.

"Don't be surprised when I hang up on you," said Miller, who moved to Las Vegas in 2014, before ending a phone interview.

Parris on Wednesday declared the charges the end of Ledford's reign over Palmdale. "People should work for the well-being of the community, not themselves," the Lancaster mayor said. "The area has suffered for 20 years."

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UPDATES:

4:00 p.m.: This article was updated with comments from Ledford's attorney.

3:25 p.m.: This article was updated with Ledford's court appearance and bail amount.

This article was originally published at 2:10 p.m.

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