Alatorre Takes the Fifth — 108 Times

Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

It was not, on the whole, a good month for lame-duck Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre. There was, for instance, the April 13 election to pick his successor. About which two things were, from the incumbent’s point of view, noteworthy. The first was that the candidate he endorsed, neophyte Luis Cetina, got about 8 percent of the vote, finishing fifth. Cetina pulled this off, in one of L.A.’s most heavily blue-collar neighborhoods, after Alatorre helped wangle him the heaviest union endorsement in the race — that of the entire Service Employees regional council.

Worse still, the top vote scorer was a kid named Nick Pacheco, who, far from being Alatorre’s protégé, was that of Alatorre’s primal earthly enemy, Eastside political shaker Henry Lozano.

These were fiery signs in the heavens. From the top to the bottom of the ticket, the 14th District’s voters renounced and repudiated Alatorre’s entire 28-year career in the Assembly and City Council.

That was the public reproach. Then there was the until-now private humiliation he’d endured three weeks before, in an Encino deposition for a wrongful-termination lawsuit. During the councilman’s two hours under oath, he invoked his constitutional right not to incriminate himself (by my count) 108 times. That comes out to nearly once per minute: It might even be a Guinness record. In a session repeatedly interrupted by objections from his own lawyers, Alatorre answered only a handful of questions.

Alatorre is not a named party in the lawsuit, but he was, nonetheless, apparently eager to avoid testifying.

On the original deposition date — March 12 — he no-showed, claiming to be "ill and unavailable." Plaintiff’s attorney Louis Cohen asked Alatorre how he’d managed to attend City Council that day. Alatorre, on advice of counsel, declined to answer on the grounds that he might incriminate himself.

It’s easy to understand why Alatorre was such a reluctant witness. A Weekly review of court documents, testimony and other public records related to the case unearth a revealing and disturbing picture of the once-vast scope of Alatorre’s influence and how he used it.

And even without Alatorre’s help, there already is substantial testimony and documentation linking Alatorre to the alleged wrongful termination. The federal suit in question has been brought by one LeRoy H. Graw against the MTA and his former supervisors, short-time CEO Joe Drew and Drew’s then-henchman in the construction world, Stan Phernambucq.

And Richard Alatorre, let us stress again, isn’t a defendant. But that doesn’t mean he’s not connected to the events that are the subject of the suit.

Graw’s suit alleges that the defendants abruptly fired him from his $80,000-a-year MTA contract-review job, in large part because of his role in the MTA’s rejection of the notorious $65 million Metro East Consultants (MEC) contract bid for the Eastside Red Line. Twenty percent of this contract belonged to TELACU, the accusation-crossed Eastside outfit run by Alatorre intimate David Lizarraga. The prime TELACU subcontractor was none other than Cordoba Corp., the generally inept but superbly connected creation of another Alatorre boon companion, George Pla.

In court papers, Graw alleges that Alatorre, appalled at Graw’s 1996 presumption in heeding an independent panel that had rejected the councilman’s MEC pet in favor of the top-ranked Jacobs Management Associates proposal, made Drew fire Graw. And ordered Drew and Phernambucq to put the bottom-ranked MEC proposal atop the stack. At this, the majority of the MTA construction-committee members balked, and booted MEC again.

MEC insiders, including attorney Neil Papiano, who represented Alatorre pro bono in his child-custody case, spun the facts into their own cocoon. MEC, they said, had fallen victim to the MTA board’s anti-Alatorre member Gloria Molina. Eventually, a Superior Court judge kicked out the Jacobs award, calling the entire process tainted. In the wake of this scandal and others — not to mention a series of boondoggles — came Proposition A, a draconian solution to the MTA mess that let the voters kill all future subways.

Meanwhile, the MEC spin discreetly unspun. The L.A. Times reported that Drew had attended a golf event sponsored by MEC during the bid process. Then it emerged, from depositions in the lawsuit, that the official MTA report in which Drew explained the "reasons" he’d 180’d on the MEC after Alatorre’s intervention was not Drew’s work at all. According to the testimony of Mike Gonzalez, an MTA whistle blower, the report was written by Sharon Neely, formerly a hireling of Richard Alatorre but never, as the law required, employed by the MTA. The 53-year-old Drew, who’d won the Army Legion of Merit, two distinguished flying crosses, 30 air medals, three bronze stars and two purple hearts as a Vietnam helicopter pilot and had later served with distinction as Kern County’s CAO, resigned in what we may safely term disgrace. So did Phernambucq.

Drew appears to have fired Graw on Alatorre’s direct orders. As Graw’s attorney Cohen points out, when asked under oath whether he’d ordered Drew to fire Graw, Alatorre pleaded the Fifth. Asked if he’d ordered Phernambucq to fire Graw, he said, "No." Let’s draw our own conclusion. Having drawn that one, let’s draw another: Richard Alatorre could fire a top MTA official at will, without accountability. Does this mean he also had the ungodly power to foster personal kickbacks from grateful contractors?

How would Alatorre accumulate such power? Not from the MTA compact that created the agency. Nor from any open vote of the MTA board that includes Mayor Riordan, the five county supervisors and Alatorre.

We don’t know. What we do know is that MTA records show that Drew (along with his subordinate, Phernambucq) endorsed an independent review panel’s September 18 MEC rejection until the councilman got to him. And then, the lawsuit alleges, Drew got Graw fired on rigged personnel charges an hour before the September 25, 1996, MTA board meeting at which Graw was to discuss a related matter of illicit contract processes. After which, Drew allegedly tried to bury the independent panelfindings against MEC by pretending to the world that the entire rejection was Graw’s idea. All this, while busily trying to re-engineer the award for MEC. Busy Joe Drew.

What was in this for Alatorre? Well, there’s the Old School Tie thing — Lizarraga, Pla and Alatorre having long been joined at the hip in the Latino press as "The Golden Palominos," like some East Side Story street gang. Cohen asked Alatorre, "Isn’t it true that you [publicly] accused Graw of ‘poisoning the well’ in this procurement?" This was indeed true. Anyone present for the last few MTA meetings that Graw attended would also remember the outpourings of the by-then decidedly out-of-control councilman, who’d also shrieked "Shut up" and "Take a Valium" at fellow board member Zev Yaroslavsky.

At one of these meetings, Yaroslavsky said, "This agency is known to have a history of retaliatory firing." He was referring to Franklin White, the honest MTA CEO whom Drew replaced, who’d been dismissed in 1995 due to his own aversion to contract rigging.

Again, what was in it for Alatorre, that he was so willing to savage the process, destroy several careers and — potentially — earn historic credit for being the person most responsible for bringing down the entire MTA? Well, one comparatively modest benefit — undisclosed at the time — was a new $13,000 roof on Alatorre’s Eagle Rock house courtesy of TELACU. After its discovery, the roof deal was characterized as a loan — but there’d been no payments, nor any schedule for making them.

At one point in the deposition, Cohen asked Alatorre, "If I ask any question regarding that roofing transaction — who paid for it, whether it was a kickback or a gift — would you respond with your privilege against self-incrimination?"

Alatorre did so, for the 65th time that day.

But nothing has ever been that simple in the history of the most corrupt living L.A. councilman I can recall. Nothing is unconnected in his busy life.

According to Times reports, the financing for the Eagle Rock house that TELACU roofed was facilitated by Sam Mevorach, for whom Alatorre had tried to facilitate one huge property deal — the city’s $20-million-plus acquisition of Mevorach’s Wyvernwood housing project, assessed at under $4.9 million — and had facilitated the city’s similarly costly purchase of the near-worthless downtown Hayward Hotel — an ongoing disaster that just this month cost the city another $500,000 in litigation bills.

Other parties in the Hayward transaction, the Times reported, had donated $100,000 to Alatorre’s pet district "charity," the El Sereno Youth Center, which sometimes serves as an Alatorre family contribution mechanism, via his wife, Angie, whose "Eventfully Yours" catering service monopolizes its fund-raising events. All strands of Alatorre’s career, each equally suspect.

And now, these strands are going to be aired out in a federal court case that doesn’t even bear the councilman’s name. But in which he seems to be at the very center of some epochal corruption.

In a motion hearing Monday, U.S. District Judge Dean Pregerson, in what he himself termed an unusual observation, recommended a rapid settlement of this case. This column will have more details next week.

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