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
How Perez got to where he is today is a controversial subject in Cudahy.
As they did in Bell Gardens, investigators swept down on Cudahy City Hall and Perez’s house in 2001, looking for evidence that he violated criminal conflict-of-interest laws when he backed the maneuvering that led to his switch from councilman to city manager on the same day.
According to sworn statements and memos from District Attorney Steve Cooley’s office obtained by the Weekly, Cudahy employees were pressured to use the same law firm that represented Perez in the investigation. (That firm, astonishingly, was headed by Cooley’s best friend, former District Attorney Robert Philibosian.) A clause in the document that city employees were pressured to sign stated in part: “An advantage of using a single law firm in a criminal matter may be to help assure a common position and increase the likelihood that none of the clients will cooperate with the prosecution.” Other city officials, later named as targets, also retained top-shelf attorneys on the city’s dime. The result was a stonewall defense that cost Cudahy taxpayers $1 million in legal fees.
The aftermath has not been as promised by the upbeat Perez. Some of his harshest critics — L.A. Sheriff’s deputies who worked in Cudahy — accuse him of seeking out a predatory tow-truck company to tow cars for minor violations and thus boost city coffers. Property owners accuse him of being quick to aggressively ticket them for small building violations, even as the city's main commercial corridor wallows in blight.
L.A. Sheriff’s Detective Raul Gama patrolled Cudahy in the mid-1990s, trying to eradicate gangs. He claims that Sheriff’s Department raids and sweeps, aimed at catching gang members with probation and parole violations and putting them back behind bars, were reducing gang-related crime by 35 percent.
Gama describes his interactions with then-councilman Perez as “a game of cat and mouse.” He says Perez preferred him to focus on vehicle checkpoints, which allowed the city to tow cars and charge impound fees when the city nabbed mostly illegal immigrants for not having driver’s licenses.
“I had a problem with preying on people,” Gama says. “It wasn’t the best use of our resources.”
Later, as city manager, Perez eliminated jobs, concentrating power in his office, according to internal city memos obtained by the Weekly. After disagreeing with a member of the Chamber of Commerce, he stopped the city’s longtime contributions to the chamber, causing the chamber to leave Cudahy, which contributed to disarray in the city’s business community.
L.A. County Deputy Sheriff Miguel Mejia, who served for several years in Cudahy, says he always was baffled by Perez’s obsession with wielding power while law enforcers were fighting an uphill battle against gangs and drug dealers, who, he alleges, seemed to have an inside line into Cudahy City Hall.
Says Mejia, “We brought in helicopters, a special gang-enforcement unit. I seriously believe gangs felt our presence.” But, he says, “If we suspected someone of committing a crime, we’d have to keep it from the city.” Interviews with two former Cudahy municipal officers, who asked to remain anonymous, confirm that part of their job was to report to City Hall about what the police were doing, and who they were talking to.
Perez’s revenue-generating activities paid off —? sort of. The city reserve climbed to $3.8 million in 2006 — an unusually high reserve for any California city with an $8 million annual budget.
Yet unpaid bills mounted. The Weekly has reviewed internal e-mails from city employees warning that road-repair companies were threatening to send the city to collections and reminding Perez that payroll expenses were reported for employees no longer with the city. Despite the huge city reserve, payment on the police contract fell behind last year by $245,000, according to a June 20, 2006, letter to Perez from former Maywood City Attorney Cary Reisman.
A 2003 decision shows where the city’s priorities are — and may begin to explain why Maywood’s current police troubles are not easily separable from Cudahy.
Perez and the sheriff had already been at cross-purposes for years when, three years ago, Perez moved to oust two local tow-truck companies the Sheriff’s Department had long worked with. Perez wanted to bring in Maywood Club Towing, giving it access to sensitive law-enforcement data, according to Sergeant Ruben Martinez of the L.A. Sheriff’s Department.
“You’ve dealt with two companies for years that are located right in your city, and all of sudden you go outside with a company you’ve never worked with before?” asks Martinez. “We weren’t comfortable with that.”
Not to be thwarted by the Sheriff’s Department, Perez shopped for another agency to police Cudahy — and Maywood, despite sharing no boundaries with Cudahy, liked the idea of earning $2 million a year, which allowed Maywood to double the size of its small force. Perez says the move had nothing to do with a towing dispute.
Dumping the sheriff’s contract was bizarre. Interviews with local drug police and a review of search-warrant records from 2006 confirm that Cudahy — all 1.2 square miles of it — is a crime hotbed, even as Maywood police work overtime on traffic patrol. In April, federal agents seized automatic weapons and 270 pounds of marijuana and caught Cudahy-based suspects on a wiretap discussing plans to buy and sell “20 to 30 pounds” of methamphetamine and large amounts of cocaine.