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Friends in Low Places 

A city-approved towing firm’s manager faces opium-distribution charges — no biggie in Bell Gardens

Tuesday, Apr 17 2007
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When the city of Bell Gardens awarded an exclusive towing contract to United Motor Club last November, there was no public mention that the company’s representative, standing before the city council and chief of police, was a convicted felon on trial in two federal drug-trafficking cases.

At the time, however, Shahram Shayesteh (not to be confused with the lawyer of the same name), a self-described “manager and spokesman” for the company, was more than two years into his defense against a pair of indictments for conspiracy to launder money and distribute opium.

In one case, Shayesteh is accused of depositing $64,000 into the bank account of a business associate in exchange for more than eight pounds of opium, allegedly smuggled into the United States from the Netherlands.

In the other, he is accused of purchasing more than four pounds of opium allegedly smuggled from Germany and stashed in his Reseda apartment.

City tow services are heavily regulated, requiring drug tests and background investigations for drivers, who work closely with the police and haul vehicles often held as evidence. Tow truck companies are supposed to be squeaky clean.

Yet an affidavit filed in U.S. District Court by U.S. Customs agent Tracy Cormier states that in 2005, Shayesteh admitted to being a drug trafficker at one time. Though he also claimed that he no longer was trafficking dope, a separate affidavit, filed by Special Agent Jonathan Pullen of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and based on wiretap evidence, states that Shayesteh continued to deal drugs and is addicted to opium and gambling.

Federal prison records show that Shayesteh, also known as Sasha Mattran, pleaded guilty in Wisconsin in 1994 to possession of more than 15 counterfeit credit cards and was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison. In 1996, according to the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud and was sentenced to five years in state prison. Neither the D.E.A. nor the U.S. Attorney’s Office would comment on Shayesteh, whose trial in one of his current cases is scheduled for June. His attorney, Robert Steingard, said, “Anything I say in my client’s defense I will say in court.”

The city council in Bell Gardens, home to 44,000 people with an average annual income of $28,000, recently granted United an exclusive franchise agreement — for which United paid a $50,000 fee — despite having little apparent information on Shayesteh, the company’s top representative.

A tape of the November 13 city council meeting shows Mayor Jennifer Rodriguez and Councilman Mario Beltran rejecting the advice of Police Chief Keith Kilmer, who, with the assistant city manager, advised that Bell Gardens continue to spread business between two towing companies to assure better service.

Beltran and Rodriguez seemed to have made up their minds before Shayesteh, a burly, goatee-wearing immigrant from Iran, stepped to the podium with an awkward grin and pledged to “work with the city and the residents.”

“The staff is recommending two companies, but I’m recommending one,” insisted Beltran, before voting to eliminate United Motor Club’s competitor, which had served the city since 1970. “I’m ready to move forward. I’ve done my homework.”

Rodriguez, arguing that a three-year contract with United was too short, asked, “What about five years?”

When asked by the L.A. Weekly about Shayesteh’s criminal record, Police Chief Kilmer was dismissive, saying: “I don’t know what effect that has on the tow-truck contract with the city. The city has used this company for a number of years. The main priority is whether they can provide the service. I wouldn’t know who runs it.”

A May 18, 2004, letter from Kilmer’s predecessor, former chief Manuel Ortega, to Shayesteh and United Motor Club, thanks Shayesteh for donating $1,000 to a police boxing club intended to “divert our young men and women away from drugs.”

Shayesteh’s troubles are not limited to federal court. On February 28, Councilman Beltran called Councilman Daniel Crespo to talk about a tow-truck issue and allegedly put Shayesteh on the line without Crespo’s knowledge, according to documents filed with L.A. Superior Court.

Shayesteh allegedly became angry when Crespo refused to support Beltran on a decision over how many days to allow United to impound towed cars. “I’m going to fuck you up,” Shayesteh said, according to Crespo’s request for a temporary restraining order.

The LAPD referred the case to District Attorney Steve Cooley’s office, which has not decided what to do, according to a spokesperson.

Federal court records and state business records show that Shayesteh and Beltran have mutual business associates.

Bahran Madaen, listed as United Motor Club’s secretary in documents filed with the state in 2002, and still with the company according to an employee who spoke to the Weekly, is listed in state records as a registered agent for Beltran’s political consulting firm. (Beltran ran the campaigns of State Senator Ron Calderon and Huntington Park Mayor John Noguez but says his firm is now defunct.)

According to employees of the company, Madaen is the brother of United Motor Club’s president, Seyed Madaen. (Seyed and Bahran Madaen shared a residence address as recently as 2005, property records show.) Seyed Madaen, court records state, refinanced his house in Arcadia in 2006 to post a bond for Shayesteh in one of his federal cases.

Officials in Bell Gardens and Los Angeles, who spoke on condition of anonymity, say that Shayesteh’s brother-in-law owns Maywood Club Towing, which currently is under federal investigation for allegedly paying kickbacks to Maywood officials.

Last Friday, Beltran declined to comment on his relationship with Shayesteh or the phone incident involving Crespo, his political rival, and insisted he never realized the Madaens were brothers, although “they are always together.” The Madaens did not return calls for comment.

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