By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Less than a year later, in Bell Gardens, Beltran drafted a slightly different ordinance with the exact same effect: to upgrade a city councilwoman, Maria Chacon, to city manager. The move had serious consequences. Investigators from the D.A.’s office searched Beltran’s offices in 2001 in connection with an investigation of Chacon, whom they later charged with criminal conflict of interest. Beltran hired celebrity defense lawyer Mark Geragos, though Beltran was not named as a target of the investigation, nor was he charged with a crime.
Chacon spent the next several years defending the charges on grounds that Beltran advised her it was okay to vote on the ordinance that allowed her to switch roles from council member to city manager. The state Supreme Court rejected that defense recently, clearing the way for Cooley’s office to take her to trial.
The methods of Beltran, Leal and Olivas left a mark on their former law partner Jesse Jauregui, who broke all ties with the group in 2001. Jauregui has this — and only this — to say about his old colleagues: “I’m glad to no longer be a part of Tammany Hall–style politics. How far it goes, I do not know. It became a seamy situation.”
The legal maneuvering that led to new leadership in Cudahy was part of a larger strategy, says former Cudahy councilwoman Araceli Gonzalez, a child of Mexican immigrants. “They were very outspoken,” says Gonzalez of the lawyers who advised Cudahy and Bell Gardens. “They were telling people they were going to take over these cities and put Latinos in power.”
Olivas, now in his own law practice while wearing two hats — as Cudahy city attorney and councilman in Baldwin Park — argues that the move to anoint Perez as Cudahy city manager was about Latino self-determination, and that change in leadership in small southeast L.A. County cities was for the better.
“People were tired of being governed by outsiders,” Olivas says. “This was people from Cudahy, of Cudahy and for Cudahy.”
But since that time of upheaval, certain actions by Cudahy officials have raised questions about whether they are acting in the public’s best interest as Maywood struggles to get the two cities’ shared police force under control.
Near downtown Cudahy, a thick haze hovers over the 710 freeway, with the Los Angeles skyline barely visible beyond an expanse of rail yards, storage containers, terminals and freight cars. Billboards for casinos and strip clubs and a tangle of power lines clutter the skies surrounding this bleak stretch of highway.
The cities around the 710 freeway — a gateway from the Port of Long Beach to the rest of the nation — are so small they share freeway exits. Graffiti is scrawled on overpasses, exit signs and the concrete banks of the L.A. River, informing visitors that they are about to enter gangland. The grimy strip malls, auto-body shops and fast-food joints further speak to a loss of prosperity.
Cudahy, the smallest, poorest and most violent of these cities, feels like a place the law has forgotten — a feeling that intensifies along Santa Ana Street, where a large “18” is spray-painted on a telephone-utility box at one end of the block, and another large “18” is tagged at the other end — on a government dumpster, no less, at Cudahy City Hall.
City Hall is a squat brick structure in a remote corner of the city bordered by the L.A. River and next to an often-empty park, a school and a weed-filled would-be basketball court with a sign that reads “Opening Fall 2006.”
Inside, City Manager George Perez sits behind his desk listening to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons on his iPod. His walls are adorned with photos of him and his ’64 Chevy Impala, with a license plate that reads, “2 Cudahy.” Perez, stocky with helmetlike black hair, is equally feared and loved in Cudahy.
He likes to tell people he has the city “locked down.” In his mid-40s, he’s the consummate Mexican-American political boss — just don’t tell him that. Perez, a man who sports a T-shaped tattoo between his thumb and forefinger, argues: “This is so different from Mexican politics.” Perez refuses to discuss the tattoo, or say much about the other one, on his leg — of Cudahy’s official city seal. “I’m not from Mexico; I’m from here.”
Perez is bracing for the March election, although he is not a candidate. He knows that two novice candidates are out there, hearing from poor immigrants, renters and property owners about how they are afraid to walk the streets at night, how there is nowhere decent to shop, and how other cities mock Cudahy, calling it “Crudahy.”
“We’ve never had greater public service in this community,” Perez insists. “We’ve broken down barriers by hiring more bilingual staff. I have an open-door policy. My wife and I grew up here and understand the underprivileged families.”
Thirty years ago, Perez started as a janitor, “fishing turds out of the toilets,” he says with bitter pride. Perez now owns four parcels in Cudahy and recently purchased a $700,000 house in Hacienda Heights, in the San Gabriel Valley, where he lives part-time. In addition to his Impala, in mint condition, he tools around in a convertible BMW, a luxury made possible by his $120,000-a-year salary plus a $600-per-month stipend — an unusually large fee to act as a commissioner on the board of one of three water companies serving Cudahy.