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California

South El Monte city manager resigns after bribery scandal involving mayor

South El Monte’s city manager has abruptly quit just weeks after the mayor pleaded guilty to a federal bribery count and in the wake of an audit critical of how the city was run.

Anthony Ybarra, who had been with the city for more than a decade, announced his resignation late Tuesday at the end of the City Council meeting, according to city officials. 

“He made a speech and he said he had been a very good city manager and thought he had advanced redevelopment in the city, such as housing and commercial retail,” said Councilman Joseph Gonzales. 

Mayor Pro Tem Gloria Olmos said Ybarra’s resignation did not come as a surprise.

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It followed the resignation of Mayor Luis Aguinaga, who stepped down following the revelation last month that he regularly accepted bribes from a contractor.

Two audits, including one by a firm hired by South El Monte last year, criticized the management of the city and, among other things, singled out its relationship with certain consultants.

Gonzales and Olmos had demanded that Ybarra step down, saying his management made the bribery scandal possible.

“He allowed this climate to exist,” Gonzales said. 

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Ybarra could not be reached for comment. But according to the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Ybarra denied that the city’s problems, including the bribery scandal, had anything to do with his resignation.

“Some of you might think I’m retiring for ‘those’ reasons,” Ybarra said. “My reason for resigning is that I was looking to retire anyway because of my health.”

Olmos said Ybarra will continue to receive a monthly stipend until December. He will receive medical benefits through January.

Aguinaga admitted that, starting in 2005, he regularly accepted bribes of at least $500, with cash payments left in a City Hall bathroom or in the passenger pocket of a car, according to the U.S. attorney’s office. 

The long-running corruption scheme involved a contractor who provided construction and engineering services to the city. The contractor was not named.

But by then there had already been signs of problems in the city.

Last September the town’s independent auditor sent a 15-page letter to the council members, raising concerns about the “city’s purchasing function, relationships with certain consultants and the contract monitoring process.”

The letter stated that the same issues were raised before and had not been “fully corrected by the city’s management.”

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The auditor advised the city to conduct an investigation into its internal controls.

An audit released in June found that South El Monte’s city manager — acting without council approval — authorized a series of contracts and payments involving the town’s grant-writing and engineering firms. The auditors found Ybarra had approved three contracts and authorized payments of $110,000 to Arroyo Strategy Group, which provided grant-writing services. 

Among other issues, the auditors said that Arroyo did not have a physical office and that it did not keep any records, such as time sheets, to justify the work it was doing. 

In one case, auditors said the city manager had used a city credit card to pay for airline tickets and hotel expenses for Arroyo employees. The firm later submitted a reimbursement for the expenses.

Auditors also learned that the city manager had approved a contract with ECM Group Inc., which provided engineering services to the city, and authorized payments of $29,376. But a review of ECM’s billing records revealed that employees were submitting false time and billing reports to the city, according to the audit.

In one example, auditors noted that one employee claimed to have put in  more than 20 hours a day on several occasions while he worked on a project, including 27 hours in one day.

Another employee claimed to have worked on city business “for 70 hours during a four-day period,” which meant she would have worked 17.5 hours a day for four consecutive days.

“When confronted with this information, ECM principal Hector Castillo admitted that the above referenced labor claims are fictitious, and were generated in order to secure the maximum fee allowed under the contracts,”  the audit stated.

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Castillo could not be reached for comment.

Auditors also said they found that contracts were frequently altered and were never put up for competitive bidding. The city has since terminated its contract with ECM and Arroyo, according to auditors. 

Council members Angelica Garcia and Hector Delgado did not respond to calls or emails requesting comment.

Gonzales said the resignations will allow the city to continue working to become more transparent and improve its government practices.

“There’s a cloud over South El Monte,” Gonzales said, adding that the resignations will help the city recover from the scandal. “We needed to move on from this.”

ruben.vives@latimes.com

@LATvives

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