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Breaking Away

Photo by Ted Soqui

If only they had a choice, the people who work at the El Sereno Youth Center would like to forget there ever was a Los Angeles city councilman named Richard Alatorre. Failing that, they’d rather the world knew there’s no current association between the center and the man.

"I used to respect him greatly," executive director Margie Huitron says of the politician, who remains closely linked with her organization in the public mind. That, however, was before she checked the books after arriving in her new post 15 months ago, from her tenure at the Los Angeles Boys and Girls Club.

"I don’t want to sound bitter," she laughs — and then ruefully recounts the assets she found on hand when she came to El Sereno: "We had $50,000 in two certificates of deposit, a pool table with half the balls gone and all the cues broken. And we had a deflated basketball."

What really still bothers her most is that people, and the media, still associate the center with the politician, who occasionally, according to news reports, accomplished major feats of fund-raising for the center — with the clear understanding that some of those funds would boost the coffers of his wife’s catering organization, which charged the center mightily to do its events. Angie Alatorre, the councilman’s wife, along with then–Alatorre field deputy Armando Hernandez and Steve Martinez, constituted the three-person El Sereno Youth Corp. board that approved expenditures. (The board has recently been reconstituted with six members, none of them connected to the councilman.)

Five months before Huitron was hired, the Alatorre apparat vowed — at a vast ceremonial groundbreaking on a newly acquired lot next door — to put up a new, million-dollar building for El Sereno Youth. But by the time the big expansion was announced, the center was apparently fighting for its fiscal life. Huitron’s arrival helped it survive, but as recently as a month ago, Huitron says, its future was still in doubt.

Huitron vividly recalls that much-publicized groundbreaking. So do I, having driven past the Huntington Drive location on that November 1997 day. There was a big sign (which Huitron has since removed) showing the new building. There were bands, drill teams, politicians, and lots and lots of balloons. Alatorre had just then paid $8,000 in fines for political-funding violations, and was getting terrible press for his other activities, so this powwow offered a panacea for all that bad PR.

In a way, the ceremony could be said to have been long overdue: Back in 1993, a fund-raising dinner orchestrated by the councilman raised more than half a million dollars for the center and its plan to construct the new two-story structure. The problem was that by late 1997, despite all the balloons and ballyhoo, little of that money remained.

Having seen the groundbreaking on television, Huitron assumed that funds had been set aside for the construction project, which was to include a swimming pool, classrooms and a gym. But this was apparently not so. It took a little time before she had direct information about the El Sereno center’s problematic day-to-day finances. "The [federal] government had subpoenaed all of the records," she says, referring to current investigations of Alatorre. Huitron ended up having to pay for costly duplicate files from the organization’s bank, and even then was only able to get copies of checks written during 1997.

Worse still, the center’s two mortgages were in arrears — both the $1,875 monthly payments due on the 9,000-square-foot Huntington Drive storefront, which the center still occupies, and the $1,000-a-month loan for the lot next door, where the new building was to rise.

Huitron gives Alatorre credit for helping to start the center in 1993. Until then, El Sereno had lacked a safe place for after-school activities equivalent to the facilities in Highland Park and Boyle Heights. But for years, the councilman linked himself to the new center’s fund-raising activities. These included the annual City Angel awards at the Biltmore, where Alatorre honored exceptional police officers and firefighters. At their peak, these dos raised up to $300,000.

Then there was a controversial 1996 Montebello golf-tournament benefit, which raised funds for the center but was sponsored in part by Metro East Consultants (which included two firms bossed by Alatorre cronies), one of the prime contenders for the then-pending $65 million Eastside subway contract.

But the El Sereno Youth organization also made substantial outlays in its Alatorre days, particularly for its prime public events. These were invariably staged by an outfit called Eventfully Yours, which charged mightily for its labors. The catering company was staffed by Mrs. Alatorre — then a center board member — and her sister. Although the Yours charges were high, there is no indication that the event operations were ever put out for competitive bid.

Huitron says she has no idea how all the money was spent, adding that she’s been running her programs on a shoestring. It costs her $250,000 per year to staff and run the center, whose after-school programs — which include reading, crafts, computer skills, group bicycling and sports — are offered to more than 80 school-age children in the area. There’s a still-growing need for such programs, she says, "with so many children now coming home to empty houses."

The notoriety of the former Alatorre connection, however, has made fund-raising for the project increasingly tough. That’s probably why Huitron plans to change the organization’s name.

But Huitron notes that some understanding donors have already comprehended that the councilman and the center have parted ways. She has also discovered that she can count on the kindness of neighbors. Century Housing, the Culver City firm that owns the empty lot to the east of the center, is now leasing it to Huitron’s organization for $1 a year as an athletic field. Huitron’s named it Field of Dreams — and Kevin Costner, she says, has in turn given the center a donation.

The center got its biggest break just last month from its westerly neighbor, a popular independent food market, which agreed to purchase the intended site of the new building. Huitron says that this arrangement has assured the center’s survival.

All this comes as a great relief to Huitron, and also to her friend Ruth Swiggett, whom Huitron credits with having the original idea for the center. Swiggett, a 96-year-old retired journalist, says she’s been doing volunteer work in El Sereno for 38 years. "I asked Alatorre to start the El Sereno center back in 1987 — a year when there were so many drugs and so much gang activity in our schools," she recalls. A regular center volunteer, Swiggett was appalled by the failure of the building project, but remains hopeful that the center will thrive on its original and immaculately kept site.

Swiggett remembers, sadly, that former Councilman Art Snyder had warned her two years ago, "‘Never break ground before you begin construction.’"

Now, she admits, "It looks as though Art was right."

Rights vs. Privileges

I was castigated in our Letters column last week for recently referring to a constitutionally guaranteed right — specifically, the right not to incriminate oneself — as "Fifth Amendment privilege." "Privilege" can mean a special right not given to most people — like congressional immunity. But my Random House Dictionary also defines "privilege" as "any of the rights common to all citizens under a modern constitutional government."


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