Huntington Park puts most of the finance department on leave

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The cluster of small, working-class towns southeast of downtown Los Angeles has long had a reputation for political scandals and slippery financial deals.

Ten years ago, the small town of Bell became infamous for paying its city council and executives disproportionate salaries. Next door, in Cudahy, a reformist city council candidate who rose up against corruption had bricks thrown through his windows and a Molotov cocktail was thrown at his house. And this year, prosecutors accused the former mayor of Maywood and a former city councilor of accepting bribes from contractors in the city.

Unrest in what has been dubbed a “corridor of corruption” has erupted again in recent months, this time in Huntington Park, a struggling community that highest ranked in California in a national “misery index” of poverty, commuting times and civic engagement.

A city budget analyst was arrested and most of her finance colleagues were put on leave and escorted out of city hall. The allegation was that the analyst had breached confidential records.

The action sparked a firestorm as city officials awarded questionable contracts and retaliated against those who spoke out, according to current and former city employees. Two state lawmakers have demanded an audit of the city’s finances. Then a policeman – the same one who detained the budget analyst – criticized the mayor on Facebook. He and several other officers have been relieved of their duties pending an investigation.

City leaders have offered little explanation and deny charges of retaliation or wrongdoing. They dismiss recent accusations of shady financial transactions – including from a black state legislator – as “racial prejudice” against an area made up largely of Latino immigrants and their children.

The political turmoil comes amid scrutiny of corruption allegations linked to cannabis companies operating – or seeking licenses to operate – in southeast Los Angeles County and elsewhere. Some allegations against Huntington Park executives involve a license for a politically related cannabis company.

Fernando Guerra, professor of political science and Latin American studies at Loyola Marymount University, said no studies had been conducted to determine whether cities in southeast Los Angeles County were more prone to corruption than other regions. Such assertions are “more opinion than fact,” he said.

The latest rage began on April 8 when Teresa Garcia, a budget analyst who had worked for the city for 16 years, was pulled over by police and arrested by deputies from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

The city issued a statement claiming the arrest was prompted by a “large-scale security breach of electronic financial records at Huntington Park Town Hall” that was “intercepted and contained.”

Within days, five other finance staff were escorted from town hall and put on leave. City officials have not explained the action, saying the investigation and personnel issues are confidential. The finance department, which employs nine, was closed to the public for at least a day. City officials said some of its functions, such as bookkeeping, were temporarily outsourced to keep the city hall running.

Garcia quickly added to the intrigue when she filed a lawsuit, which is usually a precursor to a lawsuit, against the city.

In the complaint, Garcia said she heard that the FBI was investigating the city and that she downloaded financial records to a hard drive because she “feared she was involved in corruption in the city.” She said she was arrested on suspicion of unauthorized computer access and fraud.

To date, no charges have been laid.

An FBI spokesperson declined to confirm whether the agency was conducting an investigation.

Oshea Orchid, a lawyer representing the workers on leave, said her clients had done nothing wrong and had been targeted in an attempt to cover up suspicious bank transfers and municipal contracts that some employees said were awarded inappropriately.

Assembly members Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles) and Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), who represent areas in southeastern Los Angeles County, want the state auditor to review potential conflicts of interest and irregularities in the cannabis licensing and awarding of contracts at Huntington Park.

In an April 23 letter to the Joint Legislative Audit Committee, Jones-Sawyer and Garcia wrote that the city had a history of embezzlement and breach of public trust.

“Vigilant Huntington Park residents have emphasized for years that lucrative municipal contracts are awarded to businesses in which city officials or close associates have a vested interest,” they wrote.

Lawmakers also asked the auditor to examine the city of commerce, but provided no specific details of their concerns. A lawsuit filed last year by a company alleges a payment-to-gamble scheme involving cannabis licenses.

During an appointment hearing for the newly appointed state attorney. General Rob Bonta, Jones-Sawyer referred to the southeast area of ​​the county and urged Bonta to help “finally put this corrupt crescent out of business”.

In a subsequent tweet, Jones-Sawyer apologized and said he shouldn’t have used a “big brush” in his comments.

Huntington Park, nestled between Freeways 10 and 710, is home to approximately 60,000 people crammed into 3 square miles in one of the most densely populated areas of the United States. Art Deco architecture built in the 1920s and 1930s.

Residents have long complained about some of the city’s contracting practices.

Two decades ago, city officials handed a $ 7 million waste contract to a friend of the then mayor without a tender. In 2015, the council approved a contract with a politically connected bus service provider that employed members of the current mayor Graciela Ortiz’s campaign team, including her brother. Ortiz, then a board member, voted for the contract. She said the connection played no role in her vote.

City Councilor Eddie Martinez said the city’s current rulers had done nothing wrong and were trying to correct past mistakes. Any state audit, he said, should examine what he claims to be large debts from previous administrations “stopping the road.”

A November internal audit of the city’s finances for the 2018-19 fiscal year found a large increase in shortcomings over previous years, including poorly reconciled financial statements and poor record keeping, leaving the city vulnerable to embezzlement and fraud.

An audit for the 2019-2020 financial year was not carried out.

A city spokeswoman said the audit showed finance staff had failed to keep accurate books since 2012.

However, many employees say the city’s current rulers have often ignored tenders and other contractual requirements designed to prevent cronyism.

In a November lawsuit, four current and former employees allege they suffered retaliation for opposing inappropriate rebates on municipal taxes and attempting to maintain internal financial controls.

Catalina Peraza, a financial assistant who was fired last year, said city officials gave an 80% discount worth $ 800 on opening a water account for the then Assembly candidate Efren Martinez’s campaign seat after she refused to do so, the lawsuit said. and interviews. Martinez lost his offer in November to overthrow Jones-Sawyer.

Another former employee alleges she was reprimanded and fired after reporting that a cannabis dispensary linked to Martinez was operating without a license.

City officials declined to comment on the details of the trial, but denied the allegations in a statement to the Times.

Martinez did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, many workers rallied in defense of Teresa Garcia. Edwin Aragon, a former senior accountant who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, alleged that Garcia’s electronics were seized to “bury the truth”.

City manager Ricardo Reyes denied the allegation. “There is nothing the city is hiding,” he said.

Weeks after Garcia’s arrest, Assn. posted a video of Jones-Sawyer’s comments on the “corrupt crescent” of cities on the union’s Facebook page. Ortiz, the mayor, responded to the April 22 post, calling it “irresponsible and unprofessional”.

In response, Mike Navia, a Huntington Park police officer and union board member, sharply criticized Ortiz, saying, among other things, that she voted for a city bus contract with the company that employed her brother.

A few days later, Navia was put on administrative leave. Three other police union leaders were also put on leave, according to two sources familiar with the matter.

Navia declined to comment. A city spokeswoman also declined to comment in detail, saying the city is awaiting the results of an internal affairs investigation.

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