A Superior Court judge sentenced former Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alarcon to 120 days in County Jail on Tuesday, sending a signal to politicians that the court does not take residency laws lightly.
Alarcon is the ninth politician to be successfully prosecuted by the district attorney's office since 2002 for not living in the districts they ran to represent, which is a requirement in California. Alarcon's sentence — and that of former state Sen. Roderick D. Wright (D-Inglewood), who was ordered last month to serve 90 days behind bars — are a warning that such crimes will be punished with more than a slap on the wrist, political observers say.
"There might have been a time when there was some kind of winking or letting it slide, and clearly that's not true anymore," said Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State L.A.
Alarcon, 60, and his wife, Flora Montes de Oca Alarcon, 49, were found guilty in July of lying about where they lived so Alarcon could run for City Council. Although the couple claimed to live in a Panorama City house that was under repair, a jury agreed they actually lived in a larger, nicer home in Sun Valley, outside his 7th District.
Lawyers for the Alarcons had filed motions seeking a new trial, but Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge George G. Lomeli denied them, saying there was "substantial, credible and reasonable evidence to entirely support the rendered verdict even beyond a reasonable doubt."
With four felony convictions, Alarcon faced a maximum of six years in state prison, and Montes de Oca Alarcon faced five years and four months.
Before the sentencing, Alarcon's attorney, Richard Lasting, asked that the veteran San Fernando Valley politician be allowed to do community service instead of the jail time that the prosecutor requested. Lasting said jail was not an appropriate sentence because Alarcon is a "dedicated public servant."
"There is not a single instance of him acting in a greedy fashion or in any manner to betray the trust of the citizens of this city," Lasting said.
About 25 of Alarcon's friends, relatives and colleagues submitted letters to Lomeli in support of Alarcon. Actor Danny Trejo, who first met Alarcon 35 years ago when they worked with the same nonprofit, wrote that Alarcon is "second to none" in his dedication to the community. Most of the letters also asked that Lomeli forgo a jail sentence.
"With incarceration, there is little to be gained and much to be lost," wrote Alarcon's daughter, Andrea, who herself is a former city official.
But Lomeli said in court that though "there is no doubt that Mr. Alarcon has had a long career serving this city," he still "engaged in misconduct" by lying about where he lived. Alarcon is unlikely to serve the full sentence, however, because jail overcrowding has prompted the county to release some inmates early.
Lomeli also sentenced Alarcon to 600 hours of community service — to be performed in the 7th Council District, which Alarcon represented between 2007 and 2013 — placed him on five years' probation and barred him from ever holding public office again. Alarcon's attorneys said he will surrender to serve his jail sentence Dec. 10.
Montes de Oca Alarcon avoided jail time but was sentenced to five years' probation and 400 hours of community service in Council District 7. She was also barred from ever holding public office.
In court, Andrea Alarcon wiped tears away after Lomeli read the sentences.
Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School who studies election laws, said she thinks Lomeli's decision to give jail time "sends a message that we're serious about these kinds of convictions." She said she thinks Alarcon's sentence will have an effect on reducing residency law crimes in the Los Angeles region, and that only "people that possess an enormous amount of hubris" will still try to lie about where they live to run for office.
Politicians began trying to find ways around residency laws after term limits were imposed on state and local officials, Sonenshein said. That meant someone hoping to go from one elected office to another might be required to move, so they started looking for easier alternatives, he said.
But now, "anybody who takes shortcuts … is going to find themselves on the wrong side of things," he said.