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Opinion

Termed-out Fuentes stays on Assembly payroll while running for council

Termed-out Fuentes stays on Assembly payroll while running for council
Felipe J. Fuentes III, right, is sworn in to the California Assembly in 2007. Now, while waiting to take an L.A. City Council seat to which he was elected, he is still on the Assembly payroll as a staff member to his successor.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)

The headline on this post has been changed from the original, as explained below.

Voters in northeast Los Angeles picked former state Assemblyman Felipe J. Fuentes III (D-Sylmar) in March to represent them on the City Council, but that job won’t begin until July, seven months after Fuentes’ term in Sacramento ended. He won’t be struggling to make ends meet, however: Fuentes is bridging the gap by working for his former chief of staff and longtime friend, Raul Bocanegra, who was elected in November to fill Fuentes’ seat in the 39th District.

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Assembly records show that Fuentes went on Bocanegra’s payroll Dec. 3. His title as of February 28 was principal assistant in Bocanegra’s district office; his monthly salary of $8,500 was the second-highest among Bocanegra’s aides. In fact, it’s more than the salaries paid to either Bocanegra or his chief of staff.

The unofficial tally from the March 5 election showed Fuentes with 51% of the vote in Council District 7, almost twice the percentage of runner-up Nicole Chase. The only candidate in the district to raise a significant war chest, Fuentes spent almost nine times as much in the campaign as all his rivals combined.

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It’s not unheard of for former lawmakers to go back to work as legislative aides. A spokesman for Assembly Speaker John A. Perez found seven other examples since 1995, including former Lt. Gov. Mervyn M. Dymally, who spent two years as an aide long after his initial tenure in the Legislature (he went on to win three additional terms in the Assembly). Two of those were for tenures as short as Fuentes’ will be, but both had been out of the Legislature for several years before returning to the state payroll.

And it’s routine for politicians to hold down one public post while running for another. Two state lawmakers actively representing parts of Los Angeles -- Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield and Sen. Curren Price -- ran for City Council seats this year in the 3rd and 9th districts, respectively. Both were the top vote-getters, although Price still faces a runoff election in May.

Precedents aside, Ron Kaye, former editor of the Daily News and a skeptical observer of Valley politics,  said it was “outrageous” for Fuentes to help Bocanegra succeed him and then take a high-paying job from him while campaigning for a spot on a different public payroll. “It just shows they can get away with anything,” Kaye said.

Kathay Feng, executive director of Common Cause’s California office, also was uncomfortable with the arrangement. “I don’t know that there’s anything legally wrong,” Feng said. “I think that it is unusual, particularly when somebody is running for another office.”

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Fuentes declined to comment.

Benjamin Golombek, Bocanegra’s spokesman and chief of staff, said Bocanegra hired Fuentes to help on constituent issues, legislation and personnel matters. “We’re certainly cognizant of the fact that he was running for council,” Golombek said, adding that Fuentes took a few days off without pay to campaign but otherwise limited his office-seeking to evenings and weekends.

Bocanegra wanted Fuentes’ help because of the latter’s experience, Golombek said. In addition to the six years he spent in the Assembly, Fuentes was deputy mayor for the San Fernando Valley under Mayor James K. Hahn and was chief of staff to former City Council President Alex Padilla. Having someone with that understanding of both the district and Sacramento was “critical,” Golombek said, as Bocanegra was getting his new assembly office up and running.

Not that Bocanegra was new to the demands of the job -- he’d joined Fuentes’ staff in November 2007, so his tenure was almost as long as Fuentes’.

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“Our goal was to put together the best possible team” to address the district’s needs, Bocanegra said. Speaking of Fuentes, he added, “I don’t think that anybody can question that he certainly fits the qualifications for putting together the best possible team to serve the 39th Assembly district.”

Golombek said Bocanegra wanted to avoid any perception that Fuentes might use his new job as an aide to help his prospects in the race for the 7th Council District, which shares turf with the 39th Assembly district. “He didn’t go attend community events on behalf of the Assembly member,” Bocanegra said. “That could be perceived in the wrong way.”

And as a technical matter, Bocanegra couldn’t hire Fuentes without the approval of the Assembly leadership, which has to sign off on the hiring of all aides. Nevertheless, Bocanegra is responsible for the hiring as well as for Fuentes’ title and salary.

It’s reasonable for Bocanegra to want an experienced hand to help him make the transition from assisting a legislator to being one. But it’s hard to imagine that his longtime friend and former boss was the only Sacramento veteran available. Considering the extremely high salary Fuentes is being paid and the fact that he took the job months after he started campaigning and fundraising for the City Council election, it’s fair to ask whether Bocanegra really was putting his district’s needs first.

There are scores of former Assembly members still living in California, and only one of them is still on the Assembly’s payroll.

Fuentes has tapped public funds at least once before while moving from one public-sector job to another. He was chief of staff for Padilla in the 7th District until Padilla won a seat in the state Senate in 2006. Fuentes then ran for and won a special election to replace Assemblyman Richard Alarcon (D-Panorama City), who had won the seat Padilla vacated on the council. The day after Fuentes won that election, he obtained a $7,500 contract from the City Council to brief Alarcon’s council staff. Not that Alarcon was new to the council; he’d represented the 7th District before heading to Sacramento.

[For the Record, 2:10 p.m. March 22: The post’s original headline stated that Fuentes stayed on the Assembly payroll while “campaigning” for council. The headline was changed to clarify that, as the story notes, Fuentes was not permitted to engage in campaign activities while performing his duties for Bocanegra.]

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Follow Jon Healey on Twitter @jcahealey


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