One of the biggest financial fraud cases in the history of Los Angeles County government was first uncovered by a little community newspaper based in Cerritos, a city of 49,000 tucked away in the southeast corner of the county, best known regionally for its massive auto center — "the world's largest selection of new and pre-owned vehicles," or so they say.
Los Cerritos Community News' 2012 story, about county assessor John Noguez's alleged practice of lowering the assessed value of properties owned by people who'd contributed to his campaign, was confirmed, days later, by the Los Angeles Times and other media outlets, and led to the resignation and arrest of Noguez (five years later, he's still awaiting trial).
"Just because you come from a small newspaper doesn't mean you can't do national-quality journalism," says Randy Economy, the reporter who broke the story, still brimming with pride.
The reputation of Los Cerritos Community News was catapulted from that of a run-of-the-mill community newspaper — a free weekly unceremoniously tossed onto driveways — to a hard-hitting investigative paper, a scrappy underdog that had scooped the Times. At the Los Angeles Press Club Awards the next year, Economy and the paper's editor-publisher-owner, Brian Hews, took home the award for "Best Investigative Series" for a newspaper with a circulation of under 50,000.
The two were photographed at the event, Economy in his trademark black eyepatch, the stouter Hews with his Cheshire cat grin.
Since then, Los Cerritos Community News has won a number of other Press Club awards, and Hews has leveraged that respectability into something quite different from traditional journalism. He has built a highly partisan newspaper chain, one that — according to its fans and critics — allies itself with certain politicians and aims to destroy others. It is, in the eyes of some, less a newspaper and more a weapon.
"Brian has a lot of good alliances," says Ron Beilke, a former city councilmember in nearby Pico Rivera, who has received favorable coverage from Hews. "And does he highlight certain things? Sure. It's a small paper."
Or, as Hews put it in a written statement relayed by his attorney, Scott Talkov: "A reporter is not doing his or her job unless half the community is angry at them, and the other half loves them."
Talkov compares his client's newspaper to partisan television networks such as Fox News or MSNBC. "Fox News is colluding with the Republicans to produce news," he says. "And that is a part of journalism."
That view, that it's OK for a news organization to be biased because every side can have its own media organ, has become more and more accepted in today's polarized political climate. One man's Breitbart is another's Vox. One man's must-read is another's fake news. But that view leaves out the potential harm that certain news stories can cause, even if they're published by a small community newspaper.
A growing number of local politicians in the southeast part of L.A. County are speaking out against Hews — and a few are fighting back against what they claim is a newspaper with a mission not to tell the truth but to carry out a warped vendetta.
"They act like they're these good-government reformers," says Leo Briones, a political consultant. "I don't think any of their editorial content has anything to do with that. I think it just has to do with relationships and people they like."
"He was taking the paper into yellow journalism, and I don't believe in that," says Jerry Bernstein, a longtime newspaper reporter who served as editor of the Los Cerritos Community News until he quit in 2013. "The story itself should be objective. Brian doesn't do that. His stories are just full of innuendos. If he likes you, fine. But when he goes after you, he will use innuendos, he will falsify, exaggerate, you name it. He does it without substantiation. That, to me, is not reporting."
Hews is facing a libel lawsuit, filed in April by Central Basin Municipal Water District director Leticia Vasquez. The suit claims Hews printed allegations about Vasquez that were "made up out of thin air," and that "Mr. Hews is engaged in a conspiracy with certain of [Vasquez's] political adversaries to ruin Ms. Vasquez's public and political reputation and to destroy her electability as a public official."
Another elected official, Andrew Sarega, a La Mirada city councilmember, also is suing Hews, claiming that another one of Hews' newspapers, La Mirada Lamplighter, should not be allowed to run the city's legal ads — which could cost the publication tens of thousands of dollars a year in revenue.
Hews declined to be interviewed for this story, explaining in a terse email: "I am very busy, one-man show here. I write, sell, design the paper, collect bills, send out bills, IT, customer service, distribution manager." As for the lawsuits, he wrote:
"Both are ongoing lawsuits I cannot comment, but I will say why they are suing me ... its [sic] obvious ... good ole investigative reporting."
In lieu of an interview, Hews made his attorney, Talkov, available. ("He is $250 per hour," Hews wrote.)
"Southeast L.A. County is lucky to have a community newspaper that upholds the First Amendment and thoroughly investigates the inner workings of government," Talkov says, "and it is a shame that there aren't more publications like this."
Hews calls himself an "activist journalist." People who've worked with him claim he singles out his enemies and relentlessly targets them in the pages of his newspapers, which in addition to Los Cerritos Community News include La Mirada Lamplighter and the Downey Beat.
And how does he choose his foes?
"If you don't advertise with him," Bernstein says, "you're automatically an enemy."
After Chuong Vo, a Torrance police officer running for a seat on the Cerritos City Council, refused to buy an ad in Los Cerritos Community News, Hews wrote several stories critical of Vo, saying in one that he'd received campaign contributions from "very suspect individuals." Vo lost his recent re-election bid by a few dozen votes.
"If he didn't write those things about me, I probably would have won," Vo says.
Campaign finance records indicate that two of Vo's opponents did buy ads in the Los Cerritos Community News: Frank Yokoyama (who spent $660) and Grace Hu (who spent $2,300). Both have received mostly positive or neutral coverage from the paper. Both were elected.
According to several local elected officials and community members, Hews is quick to make enemies — especially when he feels threatened financially.
In February 2013, Los Cerritos Community News ran an advertisement attacking Cerritos city councilmember Carol Chen, who was then running for re-election. The full-page ad showed a drawing of Chen's face, from the neck up, alongside Mao Zedong, Josef Stalin, Vladimir Lenin, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, all lined up like some kind of communist Mount Rushmore against a crimson background. Above the drawing, yellow bold letters declared: "CAROL CHEN IS AN AGENT OF COMMUNIST CHINA."
The ad made reference to an earlier news story in Los Cerritos Community News about a trip to China and Japan taken by a group of elected officials in the county, including Chen, who later said the trip was paid for out of her own pocket.
"It's unbelievable that someone would use that kind of racism," Chen says. "To still have people using that as a way to depict a person — it's unbelievable."
According to California election law, political ads must state the name of the campaign paying for the ad. If the campaign is independent from a candidate, it also must state who the biggest donor to that outside group is. This ad stated: "Paid for by your local SEIU."
That alone would have been an infraction. But the ad was not actually paid for by anyone's local SEIU, as lawyers from the service workers union were all too eager to point out. When confronted with this, Hews told the Long Beach Press-Telegram, "It's a complete misunderstanding. ... It was a production error. The people who came in here (to pay for the ad) represented unions and I just assumed it was the local SEIU."
In fact, the ad had been paid for by an independent expenditure committee calling itself "Citizens for a Clean and Honest Government." Campaign finance forms, filed later, showed the committee to have been controlled and paid for by Hews himself.
In 2014, Hews was fined $5,000 by the state's Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC).
Los Cerritos Community News, of course, depends on advertising revenue. Campaign ads, which can be bought for a few hundred dollars, are a small part of this. The publication makes far more money from legal advertising — public notices for things like public hearings that cities must, by law, place in adjudicated newspapers.
In 2011, in order to close a budget deficit, the Cerritos City Council voted to cut its budget for legal advertising. This, says Chen, is what really earned her Hews' enmity.
"I was getting [emails] from him saying, 'This is your way of eliminating the budget for my newspaper,' and on and on," Chen says. "Then when I ran for re-election [in 2013], I got attacked by him. He sees we're cutting out his livelihood."
According to information obtained by the L.A. Weekly through public records act requests, Los Cerritos Community News has made more than $400,000 from advertisements placed by the city of Cerritos since 2010. In the first five months of this year, the city has paid the newspaper more than $45,000.
The paper has received smaller sums from other cities and jurisdictions. Since 2010, it's gotten $146,000 from Artesia (including $45,000 in the first half of 2017); $128,000 from the city of Hawaiian Gardens; $94,000 from La Mirada; $33,000 from the Water Replenishment District of Southern California; $27,000 from the Montebello Unified School District; $17,000 from the city of Norwalk, and so on.
Since 2010, Los Cerritos Community News has received at least $875,000 from local cities, school districts and water boards.
That may help explain why Hews has clashed with publishers of two other local community papers, who compete with him for legal ads. He's filed a lawsuit against Downey Patriot publisher Jennifer DeKay, challenging her publication's qualifications to run legal ads. And he's filed an FPPC complaint against Gateway Guardian publisher Melinda Kimsey. He also has written a number of stories critical of the two women.
Kimsey used to work for Hews, who has written stories accusing her of lying about her circulation numbers, of being in cahoots with Chen and of "falsely accusing [a] teacher of pedophilia."
As a teacher in the Bellflower Unified School District, Kimsey had accused a teacher of sexual harassment. In a complaint against the school district, she also alleged the teacher had sexually abused students. The district fought her; the case dragged on. Finally, as part of the settlement, Kimsey agreed to retract her accusations.
"To print something you know is a lie or out of context to strictly hurt someone, that's wrong on certain levels," Kimsey says.
Hews has sent numerous text messages (screenshots of which were provided to the Weekly) to Kimsey and Bernstein, his old editor, who now serves as the Gateway Guardian's editor emeritus. In one, he asks Kimsey, "Have you falsely accused anybody of pedophilia or sexual harassment lately?"
More recently, he texted, "You guys are walking cluster eff."
Bernstein responded: "Don't U have anything better to do?"
Hews answered: "Of course I do but I love poking you amateurs in the eye all the time."
"There is a lot of money over legal ads," Talkov admits, "and there's a lot of fighting over the turf."
State Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon has a name for Southeast L.A. County: "the corridor of corruption." According to the Sacramento Bee, more than a dozen city officials from just five cities in Rendon's district — Maywood, Bell, Cudahy, South Gate and Lynwood — have gone to jail or prison in the last 11 years, including the seven officials from the city of Bell, who were convicted of corruption and graft.
Most of the cities in the southeast region are small and poor. Many of their residents are immigrants. Voter turnout is low. There's little news coverage, save for small community newspapers and the occasional story in the Times. Politics here is no-holds-barred and personal. Public officials sue each other. They threaten one another. Whole families dive into elected office. Dynasties take root. Cronyism is the norm. Most positions are part-time; politicians do consulting work on the side, at times shilling for contractors who bid on government contracts.
All this has been on full display at the Central Basin Municipal Water District, a water wholesaler that provides imported water to 1.7 million people living in a 227-square-mile area. State Assemblyman Tom Calderon was once a paid consultant for the district. He also was working for a water management company, Water2Save, and helped it secure a lucrative contract with the water district. Last year, Calderon was sentenced to a year in federal prison after pleading guilty to charges that he laundered bribes taken by his brother, Ron, who himself was sentenced to 42 months in prison after pleading guilty to federal corruption charges.
A state audit found Central Basin to have "often inappropriately circumvented its competitive bidding process when it awarded contracts to vendors," among other acts of malfeasance.
In 2012, Leticia Vasquez ran for a seat on the Central Basin Municipal Water District's board of directors as a reformer. She was, practically from the moment she took office, attacked by Los Cerritos Community News.
"It probably took me about three months [before] I saw that there was a pattern," Vasquez says. The paper was critical of her and two other directors, James Roybal and Robert Apodaca. The other two directors, Art Chacon and Phillip Hawkins, were left alone. "I realized [Hews] was using the newspaper to try to influence the decisions we were making on the board," she says.
In June 2016, a headline in Los Cerritos Community News read: "SOURCES: Central Basin Director Leticia Vasquez and Montebello Councilwoman Vanessa Delgado Attempted to Extort Money From Cook Hills [sic] Officials." The story claims that Vasquez met with a developer, Cook Hill, and asked for campaign contributions in exchange for approving a project. The story cites two unnamed sources, who claimed they were told of the meeting by Central Basin Municipal Water District's general manager, Kevin Hunt.
Vasquez says the two unnamed sources are her fellow board members, Chacon and Hawkins, who she says despise her. She says the story was the last straw and that she has obtained written declarations from nearly everyone involved, denying that she ever asked Cook Hill officials for campaign contributions.
To win the case, it's not enough for Vasquez to prove that Hews simply got the story wrong. She has to prove that Hews knowingly printed false information, or at least that he did so with "a reckless disregard" for the truth. In her attempt to prove that, Vasquez has what she believes is an ace in the hole: a written declaration from Economy, who quit Los Cerritos Community News in 2014.
In his declaration (which was written before Vasquez filed her lawsuit and has been filed as an exhibit), Economy states that he and Hews would regularly meet with Chacon and Hawkins at the Commerce Casino, across the street from the Central Basin Water District's headquarters.
"The purpose of these numerous meetings," Economy writes, "was to discuss general and specific strategies and actions that we could take to discredit, defame, embarrass, belittle, smear and otherwise destroy the reputation and standing of the new Board Members including Roybal, Vasquez and Apodaca. ... As a result, we all agreed and in fact did create and publish numerous news stories in the Los Cerritos Community Newspaper about the new Board Members that were either inaccurate, false or otherwise misleading and otherwise gave a negative impression of Board Members Roybal, Vasquez and Apodaca."
Shortly before Vasquez took office, the water board voted to hire a new general manager, Chuck Fuentes, and a new special assistant to the general manager, Beilke, the former Pico Rivera city councilmember. Both appointments were made over the objection of the newly elected but not yet sworn in Vasquez.
According to Economy's declaration, Beilke also began attending the Commerce Casino meetings. He writes: "Many of the stories were actually written by Mr. Beilke, and Mr. Hews authorized their publication in his newspaper."
Neither Chacon nor Hawkins returned phone calls requesting comment on this story. Beilke did, and he confirmed the regular casino meetings, which he describes as "guys getting together bullshitting." And he doesn't exactly deny ghostwriting stories in Los Cerritos Community News.
"I remember going to the office, looking over Randy's shoulder, saying, 'You gotta be kidding me,'" Beilke says. "I would say, 'Put this in there.' He'd say, 'Yeah, good idea.' For Randy to say I wrote stuff ... if there's press awards he wants to give me, fine."
Beilke sees Economy's declaration as a betrayal.
"I don't think he has any credibility," Beilke says. "I think he changes his opinion and loyalties just because someone pays him. ... This is what Randy does. When he crosses someone, he goes to the other side."
Economy, a devout Catholic, says cooperating with Vasquez's lawsuit is an act of absolution. "Are you kidding?" he says. "I've had to get absolved from my sins by a Catholic priest."
But what really bothered Economy, he says now, was Hews' growing tendency to side with the political faction led by Art Chacon's brother, Hector, a political consultant and Montebello Unified School Board member. The faction includes their sister, Leticia Chacon, also a political consultant; their half-brother Hugo Argumedo, a Commerce city councilmember; and Fernando Chacon, who recently lost a race for Montebello City Council.
In 2012, the Los Angeles Times wrote of the Chacon family: "In the bruising world of Southeast L.A. County ... they are the go-to campaign gurus, political gatekeepers with checkered pasts whom candidates hire when they want to break into politics — or bat down a challenge from an upstart."
"When the Calderons got in all their problems, it left a vacuum for the Chacons to get in that space of patronage politics," says Briones, the political consultant. "And that space is clearly there."
Economy says he noticed that, over time, Hews "became more beholden to the interest of the Chacons."
When asked about Hews' sources, his attorney Talkov says, "Brian Hews has excellent sources at the highest levels of government that provide him with information that has repeatedly proven to be accurate that the public would not otherwise know about. These are treasured sources that reporters throughout this country wish they had."
He adds: "Does Brian Hews have a relationship with [Philip] Hawkins and [Art] Chacon? Yes. Do they give him information? Yes. I don't think Brian Hews is letting them shadow-write his stories."
Los Cerritos Community News has never written a critical story about Art Chacon, who, when he was arrested for a DUI in 2011, told police and prosecutors that he was his brother Hector (the ruse went on for two years, until Hector came forward to clear things up). In 2014, the Whittier Daily News' Mike Sprague reported that Art Chacon was collecting $597 a month from the Water District for an automobile allowance, despite not having had a valid driver's license since 2003. Neither of those stories appeared in Los Cerritos Community News.
Instead, Hews wrote a story about how Sprague was "harassing" Chacon's 80-year-old mother by "banging" on Chacon's front door, looking for comment on his story. The only source quoted in the article was Art Chacon.
The publisher followed that up with a 1,200-word editorial blasting Sprague for publishing "several questionable stories aimed at discrediting Central Basin Water District (CB) Director Art Chacon, while ignoring ethics and monetary violations of other CB Directors."
After Sprague asked Hews why the publisher had filed an FPPC complaint against La Mirada city councilmember Andrew Sarega, Los Cerritos Community News ran a story headlined: "Whittier Daily News Reporter Sides With Corrupt Politicians." The unbylined piece quotes Hews at length.
Sprague isn't the only journalist targeted by Hews. In 2016, Los Angeles Times reporter Adam Elmahrek was researching a story on Hews and tried to meet with him, writing in an email dated Sept. 13 (and forwarded to the Weekly by Talkov), "I am trying my best to give you a fair opportunity to present your side in this story."
Hews declined the invitation. Instead, on that same day, Hews published a story about Elmahrek, accusing the Times reporter of "making 'frivolous, burdensome and large' public records requests that are costing taxpayers thousands of dollars," backing that charge up with quotes from anonymous county officials. (Hews himself makes numerous public records requests.)
The article went on to cite bloggers criticizing Elmahrek's pre-Times work at the Voice of OC and quoted another anonymous "high-ranking official," who recounted a story of Elmahrek being "very rude and condescending" to a school board member.
The piece made no mention of Elmahrek's investigation into Hews, which to date has still not been published.
The vast majority of Hews' targets are part-time politicians with other full-time jobs. Vasquez, for example, teaches political science at El Camino College Compton Center. A few years ago, she applied for a tenure-track position. She believes that the administrators reviewing applicants Googled her and were put off by the stories written by Hews.
"To be quite honest with you, I was gonna resign" from the water board, she says. "It was impacting my employment."
In her lawsuit, Vasquez alleges that Hews' articles about her exposed her to "hatred, contempt, ridicule, disgrace or obloquy and injured her in her occupation."
Vasquez isn't the only one who claims to have been harmed by Los Cerritos Community News.
Commerce city councilmember John Soria, who works in an administrative capacity for the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, says a news story about his supposed connection to a convicted felon (Soria denies the existence of the connection) led to an informal investigation by the department's internal affairs division.
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DeKay, publisher of the Downey Patriot, says Hews' stories accusing her of conspiring with the Norwalk chamber of commerce to get approval to run legal ads have "tarnished my reputation."
Los Cerritos Community News may not have the widest circulation in print. But its stories are online. They show up in Google searches — often on the first page. And most people believe the stories they read.
"It's a newspaper," Vasquez says. "Why wouldn't they?"
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Chuong Vo as a former Cerritos City Council member. He never served on the city council.