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Palmdale mayor’s former consulting job may have sparked investigation, search of City Hall

Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford in 2016.
(Los Angeles Times)

A search warrant was served Wednesday night at the offices and home of Palmdale Mayor Jim Ledford as part of an investigation involving his past employment with a consulting firm that paid him nearly $200,000, according to city officials and the mayor’s former campaign manager.

Members of the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office’s Bureau of Investigations descended on six locations, said Shiara Davila-Morales, an agency spokeswoman. The mayor’s office at Palmdale’s City Hall were among those locations, city spokesman John Mlynar said, adding that a laptop was taken by investigators.

The mayor’s office was the only city property that was subject to a search warrant, Mlynar said. A search warrant was also executed at Ledford’s Palmdale home, according to Kamal Al-Khatib, who served as Ledford’s campaign manager during his 2016 reelection bid.

“This has nothing to do with the city of Palmdale,” Mlynar said. “It was the mayor’s office.”

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In a statement, Mlynar said the city has “fully cooperated” with investigators and “will continue to provide information and documentation as requested.”

A law enforcement official with knowledge of the investigation said prosecutors are looking into a “quid pro quo” relationship involving Ledford, but declined to elaborate. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

Davila-Morales declined to say what locations were searched or comment on the nature of the investigation.

Ledford, 63, 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.

Calls and emails to Ledford seeking comment were not returned Thursday.

Al-Khatib said in an email that the investigation centers on allegations first lobbed against Ledford in a 2013 deposition taken as part of a lawsuit alleging that the city’s election process discriminated against minority candidates. The suit was one of many filed against California cities that had refused to adopt district voting, which supporters say helps boost minority representation.

Palmdale settled the lawsuit in 2015 and agreed to align its voting structure with general state elections.

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 Culture Change Consulting, a Palmdale firm. Ledford’s attorneys objected to nearly every question Parris asked about the job, and often advised the mayor not to respond.

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Ledford — whose only other income at the time was his $1,300-per-month salary as mayor — received $60,000 a year from the firm. The mayor worked for the company for three years starting in 2010, earning approximately $180,000 in that time, according to the deposition.

Asked to summarize his duties for the firm, Ledford said he conducted educational research that included a 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 a NASA research center in Mountain View.

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During the course of the deposition, Parris insinuated that Ledford had taken a no-show job, saying the Palmdale mayor was receiving “payments of 2,500 dollars every two weeks for doing what appears absolutely nothing.”

The head of the firm, Susan Miller, was also executive director of the Aero Institute in Palmdale, which describes itself on its website as “a strategic partnership of Federal, State, and Regional governments, commercial companies, academic institutions, and non-profits addressing our nation’s need for a technically skilled workforce and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.”

In the deposition, Ledford said the company at one point leased property from the city for $1 a year.

A Palmdale city spokesman confirmed that the office of the Aero Institute was searched by district attorney investigators.

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Al-Khatib dismissed the allegations as a desperate attack launched by political opponents who have failed to unseat Ledford. The mayor won reelection by a wide margin in 2016, garnering 57% of the vote. Al-Khatib described Ledford as an “honest man” who is “loved by his residents.”

“These allegations are politically motivated, and have no foundation, the Mayor had to go through vetting process with Palmdale City attorney and legal Department before he accepted the job,” Al-Khatib wrote in an email to The Times and two other news outlets. “His political opponents were not able to defeat him in the election and using this smear tactics and false allegations to remove him from his office, we believe in the justice system and the truth will come out once the investigation is over.”

In a telephone interview Thursday afternoon, Al-Khatib said he believes Parris is helping drive the investigation and said there was no connection between Ledford’s decision to accept the consulting job and the city’s decision to essentially give free land to the Aero Institute.

“The city of Palmdale chose to give the Aerospace Institute because … the Aerospace jobs are bringing companies to the city of Palmdale. But the consulting firm he was working with, they don’t have anything to do with that institute,” he said. It’s a separate entity.”

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Al-Khatib said the allegations have left Ledford distraught.

“He’s very sad to see this is happening. He’s extremely upset because the people of Palmdale, they know how much he cares about the city,” Al-Khatib said.

Miller, who ran Complex Culture Consulting until she closed the business in 2013, 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.”

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She said she was “not at liberty” to discuss the purpose of the company 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, who has said he openly despises Ledford and once accused him of turning Palmdale into a personal fiefdom, said Ledford has long struggled to explain his income.

“I think people are going to prison here. I don’t have any other explanation,” he said. “What Ledford said he did in the deposition is criminal.”

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james.queally@latimes.com

benjamin.oreskes@latimes.com

richard.winton@latimes.com

Follow @JamesQueallyLAT @boreskes & @LAcrimes for crime and police news in California.

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UPDATES:

5:40 p.m.: This article was updated to include a city spokesman’s confirmation that the office of the Aero Institute was searched.

3:50 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments from Kamal Al-Khatib.

3:35 p.m.: This article was updated with details from a 2013 deposition of Ledford, and comments from the mayor’s former campaign manager, Kamal Al-Khatib, Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris, and a woman who previously employed Ledford in a consulting job.

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10:05 a.m.: This article was updated with comments from a Palmdale city spokesman.

This article was originally published at 7:30 a.m.


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