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A City Hall Telenovela 

Eastside councilman, longtime rivals locked in family dispute

Wednesday, Feb 4 1998
Mixing personal loyalty and political business is nothing new to Eastside City Councilman Richard Alatorre. That's how he built the city's smoothest-running political machine and how he became the most adept operator in City Hall.

But now, by his own account, the mix of personal and political has brought the councilman to the brink, facing FBI and IRS corruption probes of his financial dealings with local businessmen. Since the scandal broke last month in the Los Angeles Times, Alatorre has suggested to reporters and associates that what lies behind the charges is a child-custody dispute in which the councilman is battling a long-standing political adversary.

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The child at the center of that dispute is the councilman's 9-year-old niece. Alatorre and his wife, Angelina, childless themselves, took legal guardianship of the girl two years ago after her mother, Mrs. Alatorre's sister, died of cancer. "They're crazy about that girl," said one former aide to the councilman. "She's like their own daughter."

Fighting the Alatorres for custody is the child's natural father, Henry Lozano, a longtime aide to congressman Ed Roybal and his successor Xavier Becerra. Lozano had a long-running affair with Alatorre's sister-in-law in the 1980s.

What has Latino politicos abuzz over the case is that Alatorre and Lozano stand on opposite sides of a long-festering feud between rival Eastside factions. The rift first erupted in 1982, when Lozano's then-boss, Roybal, backed Gloria Molina for state Assembly against Alatorre protege Richard Polanco. Molina has since styled herself as Alatorre's chief political nemesis and detractor, and Lozano remains her close political confidant.

With all its portentous entanglements, the custody battle has the makings of a City Hall telenovela: a 10-year affair, a child born out of wedlock, a long-standing political feud, rumors of blackmail and character assassination - all played out against the backdrop of a corruption scandal and an FBI investigation.

The councilman and his allies have scripted Alatorre a sympathetic role in this soap opera: that of the embattled patriarch standing by his family while his enemies - Molina, Becerra and Lozano - conspire to bring him down.

According to this script, even the allegation at the center of the current federal probe - that businessman Samuel Mevorach and his associates improperly helped Alatorre obtain a loan to purchase a new home in Eagle Rock while the councilman was pushing for the city to buy a troubled housing project from Mevorach - gets a sympathetic treatment. As Alatorre has told at least one fellow councilman, he only bought the house so that he and his wife could make a proper home for the child.

Henry Lozano, for his part, said in court documents that he decided to pursue the Alatorres in court only after the couple refused his child-visitation requests last year. In an interview, he denied that he has had anything to do with the Times series or other allegations leveled at the councilman, saying he first met the Times reporters behind the series last week - and they weren't exactly looking for dirt on Alatorre. "They were fishing for . . . if [Alatorre] goes down, if he gets indicted, who would run for his seat?"

But in November, Lozano retained a new attorney in the case, Ricardo Torres, who seems to have a clear sense of the political capital to be gained in taking on Alatorre. A young, ambitious, politically minded lawyer who recently ran unsuccessfully for state Assembly with Lozano's and Becerra's backing, Torres is apparently prepared to exploit the councilman's current woes for maximum effect. Last week, Torres served notice for deposition of the councilman, and clearly relishes the opportunity to put Alatorre under oath. "I will be asking about everything relating to their criminal and alleged criminal behavior," said Torres in a recent interview. "I will be asking about Richard's alcohol problems in the past and everything that goes to the stability of his home and family." The prospect that Alatorre, with IRS and FBI probes looming, might invoke the Fifth Amendment delights Torres. "I'd love it, I'd love it," Torres enthused. "I had one guy take the Fifth 26 times on me, and he ended up being convicted for 10 counts of home-equities fraud. Each time he took the Fifth, he looked like he wanted to come right over the table at me. We'll see how Richard takes it. I'm looking forward to it."

If that is not enough of an indication that Torres is gunning for Alatorre, the young attorney also makes the unlikely claim he will pursue criminal charges against the Alatorres for swearing under oath that they did not know the identity of the father when they took guardianship of the child. "Perjury is such a big thing now for public officials," Torres said. "If Clinton is going to get indicted for sleeping with some kid, Richard should get it for stealing someone's kid."

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