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Farewell but Not Good Riddance 

Civic Center crawls on its belly for the crookedest councilman of the decade

Wednesday, Jul 7 1999
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Photo by Slobodan DimitrovAll last week they said goodbye to the Richard Alatorre who should have been. Pioneer political role model to the Latinos, lover of family and children. Feminist and forerunner, benefactor of the worker. And, in Assemblyman Gil Cedillo’s words, “the people’s champion.” But as most of those present must have known, by the time his 28 years in elected office ended with the month of June, he was mainly the champion of Richard Alatorre.

At the county Hall of Administration Tuesday, and particularly at City Hall Wednesday, the accolades driveled on unceasingly, interrupted by marching bands, banda bands, Jarocho bands and just about every other musical organization this side of the L.A. Philharmonic. Plus gangs of sweet little children, cheering, dancing, singing.

Though you strongly suspected that the city’s master manipulator had organized it for himself, Richard Alatorre still managed to bask in the glow. The previous day, the descending councilman had been feted by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Incredibly, in every sense of that word, this fiesta was hosted by Alatorre’s career enemy, Supervisor Gloria Molina. Who not once referred to the 17-year history of enmity between the two.

It appeared that no one had ever not liked Alatorre. For 28 years, everyone had loved and respected and honored this good and upright man and his multitudinous good works. The fest kicked off Sunday night, as hundreds of Alatorre’s friends and associates dined at one of the councilman’s favorite haunts, Traxx, in Union Station. One late-train arrival from Bakersfield told me the unexpected sight of this gala strapless and black-tie insider affair within the shadowy confines of the station’s main hall Sunday night was enough to loosen his grasp on reality.

By late Wednesday, my own sense of reality had also bolted in the face of perhaps the biggest single outbreak of ethical cretinism in California history. For four days, the praises of the sleaziest person on the Los Angeles City Council were sung in high places. Alatorre himself announced his political career’s sudden reprieve in the form of a $100,000-a-year John Burton appointment to the state Board of Unemployment Compensation. This, plus nearly $50,000 a year in combined pensions from the City Council and Assembly, ought to keep Alatorre in reasonable comfort as long as Gray Davis is governor. Even if the councilman doesn’t manage to collect the $7,500 in legal fees he’s reported to be billing to the MTA. This is for the lawyer who represented him in that March deposition in which he took the Fifth Amendment in excess of 108 times. The questions he had to answer, you may recall, all had to do with whether a free $13,200 tile roof on his new Eagle Rock house was a payoff for Alatorre’s having steered portions of a $65 million MTA contract to TELACU, the firm that financed his roof. And whether Alatorre had ordered the firing of the MTA official who tried to halt the awarding of the contract. All in a normal day’s work as an MTA board member, Alatorre seemed to be saying as he submitted the bill.

The triumphal exit procession was a surprising last act for a man whose activities were being subjected to intense criminal investigations, and whose future so recently held the possibility of jail time. The key event was probably that unreported first scene: the Black Tie Sabbath at Union Station. To which several of Alatorre’s fawning fellow council members (Rudy Svorinich, John Ferraro and Nate Holden) came to share the fare with top lobbyists such as Joe Cerrell and Darlene Kuba, who maintain an interest in Alatorre’s career. And where, rather than chagrin, the decked-out guests shared laugh lines at the expense of the Los Angeles Times’ sparse reports of Alatorre’s imperfections: his cocaine habit, his chronic inability to keep a nickel in the bank, his constant need for cash favors from those dealing with the city, and the attempt to shepherd that $65 million MTA contract to his cronies.

Besides the lobbyists, the Union Station crowd included many of the successful and powerful in Hispanic Los Angeles. Had they cared as much about good government in the 14th District and City Hall as they did about having a good time, they would have boycotted the event. Instead, they echoed Dick Riordan’s parting words to Alatorre: "The city will never be the same without you."

And your only desperate hope was that it somehow, someday, might be true.

But it won’t be, as long as his adulators willfully forget how conscientiously the councilman has besmirched the promise and achievements of his groundbreaking Assembly career in those long-ago years when he managed to do more good than harm.

 

Like most of the council members, current residents of the 14th Council District were not exactly conspicuous at Alatorre’s Black-Tie Sabbath. But then, his constituents haven’t been an Alatorre priority for many years, which is probably why the councilman announced his retirement before he could be trampled in the last city election. It’s also why the man he endorsed in the district’s April primary finished fifth, and why the runoff candidate most associated with Alatorre’s brand of politics — Victor Griego — got whomped by Nick Pacheco in June. After 14 years of neighborhood decline, district voters were more than ready for a candidate who promised services for all instead of favors for a few. They showed they wanted someone whose promises to the community might amount to more than the empty husks that litter Alatorre’s political landscape.

Nevertheless, despite Alatorre’s recent proxy defeat in his own district, he treated us to the phony triumph — complete even to little purple campaign signs posted all around City Hall — of a counterfeit public servant. No worthy, long-serving councilmen like Ernie Bernardi and Marvin Braude, no, not even Mayor Tom Bradley, ever got this much sendoff. So what if some of the public tributes sounded rather forced. Fire Chief Bill Bamattre, in particular, smiled with closed mouth as he recounted his first encounter with Alatorre’s off-the-wall hostility: "It couldn’t get anything but better after that."

In this way, Bamattre reminded us how Alatorre was in reality renowned for his brutality to city managers and staff — even for shrieking dire threats against them in front of reporters and cameras during public meetings. Now, obviously, none of these excoriated bureaucrats will miss having Alatorre around in any hurtful way. But with the ex-councilman’s potential new clout in Sacramento, it was just as obviously not in their interests to say so. Indeed, some top city officials already say they expect to call on him within the month, in hopes of influencing pending legislation.

Business is business. Yet, you have to respect the doughty realists who did, willfully, stay away from the unending and nausea-provoking end-of-June frolic. Foremost absentee was Nick Pacheco, Alatorre’s council successor. This was a very smart first move for the freshly matriculated elected official, just as intelligent as his 7th District classmate Alex Padilla’s public bear hug of Alatorre was dumb. Another very noteworthy stay-away was Police Chief Bernard Parks.

Even some council members had the sense to be absent: members Rita Walters and Joel Wachs, for instance, both of whom have shown the capacity to tell right from wrong. The others may have reasoned that, now that he’s been honored by a state patronage appointment, Richard Alatorre is forever powerful, and forever immune to local and federal prosecution. That he has too many friends in too many high places ever to be called to book now that he’s surrendered his elected post.

But the public trust he’s fractured, and the mercenary City Hall and MTA board behavior that he’s not likely to leave behind on his way to Sacramento, cry out for reprisal. Or at least a public acknowledgment of his wrongdoing. Just ask Margie Huitron, director and resurrector of the El Sereno Youth Center — the former favorite Alatorre youth charity that the councilman and his cronies recently left a broken-backed wreck. She said last week that the high praises that attended the Alatorre leave-taking celebrations took her quite by surprise.

"No one asked us," she said.

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