Mixing personal loyalty and political business is nothing new to Eastside City Councilman Richard Alatorre. That's how he built the city's smoothest-running political machine and how he became the most adept operator in City Hall.
But now, by his own account, the mix of personal and political has brought the councilman to the brink, facing FBI and IRS corruption probes of his financial dealings with local businessmen. Since the scandal broke last month in the Los Angeles Times, Alatorre has suggested to reporters and associates that what lies behind the charges is a child-custody dispute in which the councilman is battling a long-standing political adversary.
The child at the center of that dispute is the councilman's 9-year-old niece. Alatorre and his wife, Angelina, childless themselves, took legal guardianship of the girl two years ago after her mother, Mrs. Alatorre's sister, died of cancer. "They're crazy about that girl," said one former aide to the councilman. "She's like their own daughter."
Fighting the Alatorres for custody is the child's natural father, Henry Lozano, a longtime aide to congressman Ed Roybal and his successor Xavier Becerra. Lozano had a long-running affair with Alatorre's sister-in-law in the 1980s.
What has Latino politicos abuzz over the case is that Alatorre and Lozano stand on opposite sides of a long-festering feud between rival Eastside factions. The rift first erupted in 1982, when Lozano's then-boss, Roybal, backed Gloria Molina for state Assembly against Alatorre protege Richard Polanco. Molina has since styled herself as Alatorre's chief political nemesis and detractor, and Lozano remains her close political confidant.
With all its portentous entanglements, the custody battle has the makings of a City Hall telenovela: a 10-year affair, a child born out of wedlock, a long-standing political feud, rumors of blackmail and character assassination - all played out against the backdrop of a corruption scandal and an FBI investigation.
The councilman and his allies have scripted Alatorre a sympathetic role in this soap opera: that of the embattled patriarch standing by his family while his enemies - Molina, Becerra and Lozano - conspire to bring him down.
According to this script, even the allegation at the center of the current federal probe - that businessman Samuel Mevorach and his associates improperly helped Alatorre obtain a loan to purchase a new home in Eagle Rock while the councilman was pushing for the city to buy a troubled housing project from Mevorach - gets a sympathetic treatment. As Alatorre has told at least one fellow councilman, he only bought the house so that he and his wife could make a proper home for the child.
Henry Lozano, for his part, said in court documents that he decided to pursue the Alatorres in court only after the couple refused his child-visitation requests last year. In an interview, he denied that he has had anything to do with the Times series or other allegations leveled at the councilman, saying he first met the Times reporters behind the series last week - and they weren't exactly looking for dirt on Alatorre. "They were fishing for . . . if [Alatorre] goes down, if he gets indicted, who would run for his seat?"
But in November, Lozano retained a new attorney in the case, Ricardo Torres, who seems to have a clear sense of the political capital to be gained in taking on Alatorre. A young, ambitious, politically minded lawyer who recently ran unsuccessfully for state Assembly with Lozano's and Becerra's backing, Torres is apparently prepared to exploit the councilman's current woes for maximum effect. Last week, Torres served notice for deposition of the councilman, and clearly relishes the opportunity to put Alatorre under oath. "I will be asking about everything relating to their criminal and alleged criminal behavior," said Torres in a recent interview. "I will be asking about Richard's alcohol problems in the past and everything that goes to the stability of his home and family." The prospect that Alatorre, with IRS and FBI probes looming, might invoke the Fifth Amendment delights Torres. "I'd love it, I'd love it," Torres enthused. "I had one guy take the Fifth 26 times on me, and he ended up being convicted for 10 counts of home-equities fraud. Each time he took the Fifth, he looked like he wanted to come right over the table at me. We'll see how Richard takes it. I'm looking forward to it."
If that is not enough of an indication that Torres is gunning for Alatorre, the young attorney also makes the unlikely claim he will pursue criminal charges against the Alatorres for swearing under oath that they did not know the identity of the father when they took guardianship of the child. "Perjury is such a big thing now for public officials," Torres said. "If Clinton is going to get indicted for sleeping with some kid, Richard should get it for stealing someone's kid."
For all the bad blood passing between them now, Lozano and Alatorre began their careers 30 years ago as friends and political allies. Then on staff with the United Auto Workers, Lozano put in long hours in Alatorre's first campaign for state Assembly in 1972, and the two crossed paths often in the small world of L.A. Latino politics. They were both members of a generation that came of age during the battles of Cesar Chavez and the push to expand Latino political power, with Alatorre sponsoring landmark legislation for immigrant workers' rights and Lozano working with the legendary Congressman Roybal in Washington.
In 1981, Alatorre's then-girlfriend, Angelina, introduced Lozano to her sister, Belinda Ramos Nykoluck, and the two began an affair. For seven years, they saw each other on an almost daily basis, according to a sworn declaration filed by Lozano in connection with the case. The relationship helped Lozano and Alatorre remain friendly even after Alatorre split with Roybal in 1982 over the election of Gloria Molina to the state Assembly, the first shot in the long-running Eastside feud. After Nykoluck bore Lozano's child in 1988, the two pols were, in a sense, family.
At the time, few in the Latino political community knew about the child - the birth certificate lists the father as "unknown" - nor, apparently, did Lozano's wife and five children. But in 1992, the year his relationship with Nykoluck ended, Lozano's paternity became an issue in a campaign that pitted him against Alatorre. In that year, Congressman Roybal announced his retirement and endorsed Lozano as his successor. Alatorre and his factional allies quickly lined up behind school-board member Leticia Quezada. Then, two weeks into the campaign, Lozano abruptly withdrew from the race, saying at a hastily arranged press conference that at nearly 59 he was too old to begin a congressional career and wanted to "spend more time with his family." At the time it was rumored that Lozano had been strong-armed out of the campaign with threats that his paternity of Alatorre's niece would be exposed. A source close to Lozano acknowledged that the fact that Alatorre knew about the child was a consideration in Lozano's decision to withdraw. "We knew it would come out in the campaign," the source said.
During Belinda Nykoluck's long illness, her sister, Angelina Alatorre, took an increasingly active role in looking after the child. Childless herself, Angelina became, said one longtime friend, "like a mother figure" to her. Three days before Nykoluck died in January 1996, she nominated the Alatorres as guardians of her child, and full guardianship was granted five months later in the probate court. "They're crazy about that kid," said one former aide to the councilman. "Angie especially. This is the child she never had." The Alatorres moved from their Eastside condominium to a new house in Eagle Rock to make more room for the child and paid to send her to private school.
In his declaration, Lozano said that after the mother's death the Alatorres began blocking his visitation of the child, which had continued on a more or less regular, if informal, basis after the affair had ended. After turning down one request for visitation, Lozano said, Angelina Alatorre told him to "give the baby more time to get over [her mother's death] and she will come around to you." On another occasion, in October 1996, Lozano said, Mrs. Alatorre denied another request by telling him she was the guardian and "nothing could now be done and it was all completely legal."
Lozano was ready to take the issue to court when a friend intervened and suggested he make one more attempt to settle the matter personally. "I told Henry, 'Look, this could get very nasty and very expensive,'" the friend said. "'You and Richard go way back. Why don't you see if you can work this out?'" Thus a meeting was arranged at a local restaurant in January 1997, and according to the source, it began amicably enough. "Richard told Henry, 'Hey, you're right, you're the father. I know what you are going through. I went through the same thing with my first wife.'"
About 20 minutes into the meeting, when matters seemed on the way to some resolution, to Lozano's surprise, Mrs. Alatorre arrived at the restaurant, child in tow, and joined the two men in the booth. According to court records, Mrs. Alatorre was "openly hostile" toward him and shut down any talk about his visitation rights. Lozano and the councilman tried to carry on the discussion in Spanish, so the child would not understand. They were interrupted when, at Mrs. Alatorre's prompting, the child handed her father a letter crudely typed on the letterhead of Mrs. Alatorre's event-planning company, Eventfully Yours:
"Dear Mr. Henry Lozano or Lazania
"I don't want to see you ever again.
"plplPLEASE DON'T EVER BUG US AGAIN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
"P.S. STAY OUT OF MY LIFE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
Across the middle of the page, in large, looping script, the child had scrawled her name in red marker. Lozano was stunned. The meeting - and any chance at settling the matter out of court - was effectively over. A few months later, Lozano filed a petition with the probate court to vacate the Alatorres' guardianship and initiated a parallel action in family court to establish paternity and gain sole legal custody of the child.
Given the political baggage freighting the custody case, it was little surprise to City Hall watchers when Alatorre turned to a politically connected downtown attorney named Neil Papiano for legal muscle.
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A profile of Papiano's firm in the Martindale-Hubbell legal directory doesn't list family law as an area of practice, and while a database search of news articles turned up a wide array of clients - Papiano has represented Liz Taylor, Michael Jackson and the jockey Willie Shoemaker, among others - no custody cases were listed. But the attorney, a longtime friend of the councilman's, has experience where it may count most in this case: defending Alatorre's reputation.
Papiano first put that strategy into action in defending Metro East Consultants, bidders for the Eastside subway tunneling contract, embroiled last year in a controversy over whether it benefited improperly from long-standing political ties to Alatorre. The controversy erupted after the consortium, which was ranked third by an independent panel, was vaulted over the competition for the contract, prompting charges that Alatorre had "fixed" the contract for his longtime friends George Pla, president of Cordoba Corp., and David Lizagarra, head of TELACU. Both were part of the Metro East partnership.
Papiano quickly moved to paint Metro East and Alatorre as victims of a political vendetta waged by Gloria Molina and the Los Angeles Times, which broke the story. The attorney unearthed documents showing that the MTA's independent review panel in fact found less than one-tenth of one percent difference in the scores of the three candidates, and trumpeted depositions of MTA staffers saying they had been under pressure from Molina to deny the contract to Metro East. To general astonishment, the gambit worked. On July 30, Judge Robert O'Brien granted injunctive relief and ordered the MTA to begin the bidding process all over again - a decision that was as much a vindication of the councilman as it was for Metro East. The MTA is appealing the decision, though with the recent announcement that the Eastside extension has been indefinitely postponed, the matter is largely moot.
Papiano insists the current custody case has nothing to do with politics. "The only issue here is the well-being of a little girl," he said outside court last week. Other Alatorre supporters, while reluctant to comment on the record, are eager to cast the councilman in a family mode. "Richard has become a whole different person by being a dad to this little girl," said a longtime family friend. "He's more fun. He loves being with her - they joke, they laugh. He is finding joy in life that you wouldn't have without children."