BELL GARDENS CITY COUNCILMAN ?Mario Beltran walked into L.A. County Superior Court in Downey last week looking as self-assured as a politico could be while on trial for filing a false police report after being seen with prostitutes.
Beltran passed out drunk in a Skid Row hotel last June, lost possession of his wallet and city badge, and told Bell Gardens and Los Angeles police he was robbed on the street by several African-American men, one of them wielding a knife.
The boozy circumstances of his wild night at the seedy Huntington Hotel might be enough to derail the careers of lesser politicians. But Beltran has friends in high places, such as state Senator Ron Calderon, for whom he works as a field deputy, and state Senator Gil Cedillo, who mentored him early in his career. Several witnesses including Cedillo were listed as character references for Beltran, so last Wednesday, as his trial began, he was as cool as a cucumber.
That was until 6-foot-tall, rail-thin Sherrilynn Ridgeway, an African-American woman with weathered skin and a criminal record of drug dealing and prostitution, took the stand and described Beltran, a 29-year-old, 5-foot-5-inch immigrant from El Salvador, staggering around the Huntington in the wee hours of June 28 hurling racial slurs and menacing threats and, in her words, “grabbing a handful of my ass.”
At that point, Beltran’s expression suggested he knew he was in for a long ordeal.
The jury had been warned things could get ugly. They were going to hear allegations that Beltran degraded Ridgeway with words like “nigger” and “bitch,” Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Maureen O’Brien said in her opening statement — words that O’Brien said she did not feel comfortable uttering. They also were going to hear from witnesses with questionable occupations and backgrounds. “There are no angels as witnesses,” O’Brien said.
Beltran’s lawyer, Philip Cohen, was not nearly as delicate. He spat out the N-word in rapid-fire bursts while shredding the testimony of one prostitute. And he accused prosecutors of misconduct, saying they offered an implicit deal to one witness, a hotel desk clerk who placed Beltran inside the hotel but also faces an unrelated gun charge in a Pasadena courtroom.
Cohen confirmed that his client was “drunk out of his mind” last June after visiting the nearby 740 Club, whose owner is a friend of Beltran’s. But he urged the jury: “You will not be asked to decide if [Beltran] is an ass, a racist, a sexual assaulter or a drunkard. This case is about whether he knowingly and falsely [accused] someone of a crime.”
Cohen’s statement begged for some insight, however, into what a young elected official is doing in a place like the Huntington, allegedly in the company of prostitutes. If he really did use such despicable language or commit a sexual assault, what does that say about the quality of representation in Bell Gardens? And is it true that people say things when they are drunk that they are really thinking when they are sober? Beltran’s lawyer insists Beltran did not make racist statements.
The trial about Beltran’s foray into the night gave jurors a glimpse not just of the sordid life inside the Huntington Hotel but also of the next generation of Los Angeles County politicians. Seated in the front row each day of the trial, which is expected to end this week, was Beltran’s good friend and fellow legislative aide Gil Cedillo Jr., son of the state senator whose Eastside district includes the Huntington. Facing the judge was Beltran himself, a rising political star who works for Calderon, the state senator who represents Bell Gardens. And finally, presiding over the case was newly minted Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Daniel Lowenthal, the son of state Senator Alan Lowenthal — whose district includes the Downey courthouse where Beltran was being tried.
Beltran has made inroads with the Hollywood political set, posing with Dayna Bochco, wife of television mogul Steven Bochco, for photographs that were published on the Web site of Environmental Entrepreneurs, a support group for the Natural Resources Defense Council. The Web site praised Beltran for his work, just weeks after the Skid Row incident, in establishing California in the “carbon-conscious global marketplace.”
The case against Beltran revolves around two conflicting police reports obtained by the L.A. Weekly. According to a report filed less than 24 hours after his wild night, Beltran told Bell Gardens police that he wandered from downtown’s 740 Club at about 3 a.m. in search of a food vendor when he was confronted by “three to four male blacks” at the corner of Eighth and Main streets, one of whom grabbed him from behind, reached into his pockets and stole his cell phone, wallet and city badge.
There was no mention of Sherrilynn Ridgeway, the Huntington, or any of the nastiness that witnesses say occurred there. In fact, Bell Gardens Assistant City Manager Phil Gardner told police that Beltran was initially uninterested in filing a report — a hesitance that left Gardner, a reserve police officer in Montebello, “somewhat suspicious.”