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San Fernando: America's Sexiest, Most Scandal-Ridden City Government

San Fernando: America's Sexiest, Most Scandal-Ridden City Government
Patrick Faricy

Mario Hernandez wanted to go on a retreat, to get away from his small town for the weekend and clear his head. He told his girlfriend he was heading to St. Joseph Salesian Youth Renewal Center in Montebello — advertised as "a peaceful place where Jesus might more easily be heard."

She was having none of it.

Thirty minutes before he was set to leave, Maribel De La Torre burst into his apartment. She ripped a heavy, wooden picture frame from the wall and slammed it to the ground. Glass sprayed across the floor.

"If I could kill you right now, I would," De La Torre allegedly told Hernandez. "I fuckin' hate you. I hate you for what you have done to me."

Hernandez would later tell investigators that De La Torre launched herself toward him, grabbed him by the throat with both hands and began to squeeze. When police arrived, Hernandez's face was red, with a big shiner starting to swell above his cheekbone. His neck and arms were covered with scratches and bruises.

Officers took a report; Hernandez filed for a restraining order against De La Torre a few days later. Two days after that, De La Torre filed for a restraining order of her own, claiming that, months earlier, Hernandez threw her against a wall, tried to strangle her and threatened to leave her and return to his wife.

The court granted each protection from the other. Their restraining orders stipulated that Hernandez and De La Torre were to keep 100 yards' distance between them.

And that might have been fine, except for the fact that, as members of the San Fernando City Council, the pair was scheduled to sit side by side and discuss the city's financial health the following Tuesday.

San Fernando is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy — the result of mismanagement, lawsuits and the loss of tax revenue as some of its largest retailers leave the city. But when residents line up to sound off at San Fernando's mobbed City Council meetings, all anyone can talk about is adultery.

"You ain't got no shame at all," Samuel Beltran, a fixture at meetings, has said on more than one occasion, wagging his finger at the members of the council.

That word is repeated over and over again. Sometimes it's the Spanish equivalent, vergüenza. The three council members — Mario Hernandez, Maribel De La Torre and Brenda Esqueda — have "shamed" themselves, their families and children. Not only that, but they have "brought shame" to the city, with their "shameful" behavior both inside City Hall and out.

Residents have become so outspoken in their criticism that, in May, the three-member council majority passed a decorum ordinance for meetings. The new rules gave council members unprecedented power to throw out any resident who would "disrupt, disturb or otherwise impede the orderly conduct of the Council." (San Fernandans, naturally, decried the ordinance as an attack on free speech; one former mayor went so far as to accuse the council of "gestapo tactics.")

The ordinance might be best described, though, as a last-ditch effort by the disgraced council members to control, if only within those four walls, what is said about them in this 2½-square-mile town, where everyone knows everyone else — and also knows their sisters, brothers and cousins.

It's not uncommon for residents to ask De La Torre why she can't be more like her sister, former mayor (and one-time state assemblywoman) Cindy Montañez. When Mayor Esqueda's mother died in July, several residents offered their sincere condolences just before launching into demands that she resign.

In spite of the ordinance, council meetings continue to spiral beyond anyone's control. At a recent meeting, a resident named Margie Carranza stepped up to the podium. Instead of upbraiding the council, though, she turned to the audience and began pointing out alleged adulterers among them — warning one woman in particular that she knew about her affair with "Antonio from Water and Power.

"Everyone has dirty laundry," Carranza declared. "Don't think we're blind to this — everyone has dirty skeletons in their closet."

It wasn't always like this in San Fernando. A string of high-profile betrayals that emerged over the last year and a half has divided the city, the City Council and the police department. Now all the various factions are locked in a battle against themselves and each other.

First was Maria Barajas, a cadet with the San Fernando Police who was just 19 years old when she became involved with Tony Ruelas, a married police lieutenant more than twice her age. Barajas was fired under suspicious circumstances shortly before Ruelas was installed as San Fernando's chief of police.

In a lawsuit she filed against the city in April 2011, Barajas claimed that Ruelas' pal, police sergeant Alvaro Castellon, threatened to make her "disappear" if she revealed their relationship. Ruelas was removed from duty while Barajas' claims were investigated, but Castellon remained in his position. Some say he was protected because of his special relationship with then-Councilwoman Brenda Esqueda. (Esqueda denies having an "affair" but admits to "an emotional relationship" with Castellon.)

 

Months later, in November 2011, Mario Hernandez, then mayor and Esqueda's ally on the council, confessed to the audience at a council meeting that not only was he filing for bankruptcy — but he was having an affair with De La Torre, the councilwoman sitting directly to his left on the dais.

The crisis in City Hall has spilled over to the police department, where five police chiefs have cycled in and out of the position a total of eight times in the last year and half. When an acting chief has been fired, placed on leave or quit, it is usually after locking horns with a member of the council.

The department's latest casualty, in fact, was the chief at the time Hernandez filed his police report — who refused to allow Hernandez to retract the report when he had second thoughts the next day.

City government has virtually ground to a halt. Residents have mounted a campaign to recall their elected officials, while city staffers say the embattled council members have skipped crucial meetings, leaving them without direction to address the worsening budget crisis. The meetings that officials do attend quickly devolve into drawn-out sessions of public shaming.

But at least one entity in San Fernando seems to be enjoying the drama: the San Fernando Valley Sun, the local newspaper whose editorial focus is trained like a klieg light on the scandals that continue to emerge from the police department and the council's ruling troika.

"Staked out in 1874 and left to bake forever in the California sun." So begins the chapter on San Fernando in The San Fernando Valley: Past and Present. The birthplace of the Valley was founded just before the real estate boom of the 1880s, and has been violently battered by cycles of boom and bust ever since.

The last few years have been exceptionally rough for the city of 24,000, which is 92 percent Latino. Paint peels on the signs for auto body repair, check-cashing outlets and quinceañera dress shops. And those are the lucky ones that are still open — they're outnumbered by storefronts empty except for their "For Lease" signs.

Rydell Motors, the largest dealership in town, shut down last year; the city's loss in tax revenue was estimated at $1 million a year. In July, JCPenney, whose historic building has anchored downtown San Fernando's shopping district since 1953, was shuttered by corporate ownership — a $56,000 blow to the city's tax base.

But if recent years have been hard, the boom around the turn of this century was a good one for San Fernando — and much of that had to do with Sev and Martha Aszkenazy.

Severyn Aszkenazy was an unlikely name for a young Latino kid growing up in Pacoima, San Fernando's poorer neighbor. He was named after his Jewish biological father (with a minor spelling variation). But he didn't know the man as a child; he was baptized Catholic and raised by his mother.

Before he became the most powerful man in San Fernando, Aszkenazy went to San Fernando High School and had a paper route delivering the San Fernando Valley Sun. In high school he met the woman who would become his wife, Martha. Back then, as now, the pair was a team — Martha recalls taking over his route on days he couldn't do it.

It was Martha who, years later, took the initiative to reach out to her husband's father, Severyn Ashkenazy, a Holocaust survivor–turned–prominent Westside hotelier. Father and son met for the first time at the tony Mondrian Hotel, one of Ashkenazy's properties. There, father immediately embraced the son he never knew. Soon after that first meeting, both Sev and Martha went to work for him.

In addition to some 30 buildings in San Fernando, the couple ultimately came to own two businesses in town: Aszkenazy Development and Pueblo Construction. Through them, they would invest heavily in projects in their hometown, even after decamping to Los Feliz.

Library Plaza was one of several Aszkenazy projects rubberstamped by the City Council during the golden years. The plaza was restored in 2000 — a $3 million venture financed via a joint public-private partnership. The city's now-defunct redevelopment agency put up $800,000 in loans to kickstart the project; Aszkenazy bankrolled the rest.

The circle of businesses clustered around a courtyard is the closest thing San Fernando has to a town square. Sitting in the plaza, San Fernando City Councilwoman Sylvia Ballin gives the lay of the land.

 

"That used to be Mario's UPS store," Ballin says, motioning to the empty storefront behind her, out of which Mario Hernandez once ran his business.

Gesturing to her right, she says, "My husband owns this barbershop. And sitting right behind you," she says, glancing at a tall, tanned, middle-aged man in a white shirt and slacks, "is Sev Aszkenazy, and that's his brother-in-law Frank, who owns the coffee shop there."

Also in the plaza is a news rack filled with copies of another Aszkenazy property: the San Fernando Valley Sun. The weekly tabloid, which the couple purchased in 2001, has played a key role in exposing city officials' liaisons to the outside world. In the last year and a half, its small staff has dutifully cataloged every tawdry detail (sex in the police cruiser!), accusation (three council members colluding in secret!) and rumor (the mayor doesn't know how to read!).

Even before it became front-page news, there were whispers in San Fernando about Hernandez and De La Torre, at least since the pair was spotted canoodling at the town's Christmas tree–lighting ceremony a year before. Councilwoman Ballin had heard the rumors, but she brushed them off. "In this town, everybody talks about everybody," she says.

But last November, Hernandez removed what little doubt existed when he announced the affair at a public meeting. When he made the declaration, he blamed Aszkenazy — both his landlord and the publisher of the town's newspaper of record — for pushing his hand.

"Mr. Aszkenazy has made it his business to put my business out there," Hernandez told the assembly. "It is true that I did lose my business, I did have to file personal bankruptcy and I did have to file corporate bankruptcy."

One month earlier, Aszkenazy had evicted Hernandez's UPS Store from Library Plaza for being late on his rent. (Bankruptcy records show that Hernandez owed $24,500 in back rent.)

Hernandez continued: "Secondly, I'd like to put it out there, to squash the rumors, that, yes, I have been in a relationship with council member De La Torre."

From the dais, Hernandez suggested Aszkenazy drove him into bankruptcy as payback for refusing to throw his political weight behind Aszkenazy's projects.

Of course, there was also the incidental detail that Aszkenazy's wife, Martha, is the sister of Hernandez's wife, Anna Diaz, on whom he was cheating.

Just after the mayor copped to the affair, Anna Diaz stood up in the front row to announce that she and her husband were not separated when he'd begun his relationship with De La Torre.

The words had barely escaped her lips when Hernandez directed police to have his wife removed from the meeting.

Sev Aszkenazy says that he bought the San Fernando Valley Sun because every time San Fernando was in the news, it was for something negative — and all that bad press made it hard to do business. He wanted to tell the good stories about San Fernando.

Things turned out slightly differently than he'd planned.

Walking into Aszkenazy's office for a scheduled interview earlier this summer, I was surprised to be greeted by not just him but his wife as well. Martha Diaz Aszkenazy smiled as she explained that the couple was more than happy to provide background information for this piece but would prefer not to be quoted in the story.

As businesspeople, she explained, they had a reputation to maintain and did not wish to be associated with the scandal in San Fernando. They were stakeholders in the city, of course, but not part of the story.

So what about Mario Hernandez's public accusation that Aszkenazy pushed him to reveal his affair with Councilwoman De La Torre? Hernandez did not respond to multiple requests for comment, nor did De La Torre. And the Aszkenazys didn't waver from their unwillingness to talk on the record, even though I tried again.

But there is plausible reason for Mario Hernandez to suggest he might be the target of political retaliation from the couple. The roots of his suspicion might well trace back to the 2008 recall, the Aszkenazys and the Sun. What happened at that time shows not only the extent of the Aszkenazys' clout but also just how complicated things can get when the biggest developer in town also owns the newspaper of record.

Back in 2003, the Sun published a series of stories exposing mismanagement at the Latin America Civic Association, which administered money for the local Head Start program.

The three-part investigation earned the paper a New California Media Award; also as a result of the exposé, the organization, run by a friend of then-mayor Jose Hernandez (no relation to Mario Hernandez), lost nearly $11 million of federal funding.

Soon after that, Aszkenazy, who'd long enjoyed support for his developments, began to encounter council opposition. In 2005, a liquor license for the steakhouse he planned to open in San Fernando was denied.

 

Aszkenazy sued. But he didn't allege that he was being retaliated against for his newspaper's exposé. He claimed that he was denied the permit because of anti-Semitic discrimination. Jose Pulido, then-city administrator, testified that Jose Hernandez once remarked to him of Aszkenazy, "He's being greedy. He's Jewish, you know."

Hernandez vehemently denied the accusation, but Aszkenazy prevailed. The City of San Fernando ended up paying the developer $750,000.

The Sun's exposé may have been the end of Aszkenazy's cozy relationship with the sitting council, but the lawsuit also proved the end of Jose Hernandez's political career. Citing the slur and costly settlement as their primary motivation, about a dozen residents gathered the 1,771 signatures necessary to hold a recall election.

The Sun threw its considerable weight behind the recall. (The Jewish Journal reported that Aszkenazy accused the targeted members of having an "anything but Aszkenazy" outlook. "In its articles, as well as its editorials," the Journal reported, "the Sun regularly condemns the three council members who oppose Aszkenazy. A recent issue ran an editorial calling them 'despicable,' 'self-serving' and 'hypocritical.' ")

So in January 2009, Jose Hernandez, a former college professor and member of the council for 15 years, and fellow council member Julie Ruelas (no relation to Tony Ruelas), also a college professor and council veteran, were removed from their City Council seats. Brenda Esqueda, a medical receptionist with no previous political experience, who helped spearhead the recall effort, was swept into office.

The mayorship of San Fernando is not elected but rather rotates among council members. So when Mario Hernandez's rotation finished in March of this year, Esqueda became mayor. ("Unfortunately, only in San Fernando, with such poor qualifications could you still become the mayor," the Sun wrote at the time.)

Esqueda — along with Hernandez and Maribel De La Torre — soon found herself facing a recall of her own. One of the campaign's leaders is Julian Ruelas, nephew of Julie. And once again, the Sun has strongly supported throwing the politicians out.

In an April editorial published in the Sun, the recall committee detailed its grievances: the $14 million aquatic center De La Torre championed, Esqueda's alleged relationship with Alvaro Castellon, the council's handling of Maria Barajas' lawsuit and the final straw: the shame Mario Hernandez brought on the city of San Fernando with his very public announcement.

"Our city had become a laughingstock, a telenovela of international proportions," Linda Campanella Jauron wrote.

After Hernandez resigned from the council, Martha Diaz Aszkenazy wrote an editorial, one that never disclosed her sister's status as the wronged wife. Esqueda and De La Torre "have brought only shame and scandal to our community," she wrote. "They need to go!"

Reflecting on the 2008 recall she helped lead, Brenda Esqueda knits her expertly penciled brow and fixes me with a meaningful look. "I should have asked more questions," she says.

Since then, she adds cryptically, certain information has come to light that she wishes she had known at the time. She stops short of saying she was manipulated. Instead, Esqueda says, "With this recall, I tell the people: Ask questions."

The mayor is sitting in a booth at Mi Abuelo; she arrived at the dimly lit Mexican restaurant with an armful of opposition research — photographs, sworn statements, emails — about cops in the San Fernando Police Department who, she claims, are corrupt.

"A lot of it is retaliation," she says of the current recall.

Like her allies on the City Council, Esqueda has been publicly accused of having an affair — hers allegedly with police sergeant Alvaro Castellon.

Castellon is the officer accused of threatening Maria Barajas, the young cadet sleeping with police lieutenant Tony Ruelas. Esqueda defends both men, maintaining that the lawsuit was retaliation orchestrated by members of the department's "good ol' boys club," who were upset that their choice for chief was passed over in favor of Ruelas.

The Sun consistently refers to Castellon as Esquedas' boyfriend, while officially noting that Esqueda has refused to confirm the rumored affair. For his part, "We have a strong working relationship," Castellon says. "We've been there for each other through hard times."

When I ask her about their relationship, Esqueda pauses before saying thoughtfully, "I'm not going to say it's an affair — I'd say it's an emotional relationship."

That subtlety, however, appears lost on her husband. Roy Esqueda is among those who have accused the mayor of conducting an affair with Castellon. The website BrendaEsqueda.com, which is brimming with negative information about the still-married mayor, is registered in his name. So is VoiceofSanFernando.com, a website supporting the recall.

This spring, Roy Esqueda brought his grievances to the local newspaper. Diana Martinez, editor of the San Fernando Valley Sun, conducted an interview with Esqueda, which the paper ran over two consecutive weeks.

 

Among his inflammatory claims: allegations that the mayor of San Fernando uses the term "wetback," that she has difficulty spelling and writing because she dropped out of high school when she became pregnant with her first daughter, and that she has lost weight, bought new clothes and started using Botox since she began dating Castellon. Roy Esqueda added that his estranged wife keeps Castellon's photo on her nightstand.

He also reported that his wife filed a restraining order against him, threatening his lifelong dream of becoming a gun dealer. It was all part of a misguided attempt, he told the Sun, to pressure him into testifying that the mayor had not met in secret with Hernandez and De La Torre — a violation of California's Brown Act. (Roy Esqueda says the meeting took place in his home, where the three council members asked him to close the shutters so they would not be observed.)

An italicized footnote, tacked on at the bottom of the last piece, explains that Brenda Esqueda initially "failed to return our calls by press time." Later, an interview was scheduled, but at the last minute, the paper declined Esqueda's request to change the terms and location, and the interview never happened. The same footnote adds that, while scheduling the interview, the mayor denied ever using the term "wetback" or acting unlawfully.

Esqueda says the Sun refuses to hear, or print, her side of the story — or, for that matter, the sides of De La Torre or Hernandez, while routinely printing brazen attacks. "They actually wrote in their newspaper once that Maribel De La Torre 'will put anything between her legs,' " Esqueda says.

In a lunch conversation, Martinez defended the paper's integrity while citing her credentials as a reporter for KFWB News Talk 980 AM in the 1980s and '90s. She maintains that the paper's owners have never attempted to influence its content.

If there is an epidemic of bad behavior in San Fernando, it might be traced back to April 2011, when the affair between 19-year-old Maria Barajas and the married police chief, Tony Ruelas, became public.

As Barajas' suit would later detail, for months Ruelas wooed her with text messages and emails. That led to fooling around in a San Fernando police cruiser and, ultimately, sex at a Woodland Hills Comfort Inn (she says she was a virgin at the time), according to the complaint. After the affair ended, though, Barajas was unceremoniously dumped by the department.

After she was fired, Barajas brought a suit alleging she was the target of harassment, intimidation and threats — including the threat from Castellon that she might "disappear" if she revealed the relationship. Castellon denies threatening Barajas; he claims he was set up by members of the San Fernando Police Officers Association.

According to the suit, Castellon told the young cadet that the police department, now headed by Ruelas, "was not functioning correctly because everyone was stressed that the relationship would be revealed."

The city ultimately settled with Barajas for $10,000 — "a nuisance fee," city administrator Al Hernandez calls it. But the lawsuit set off a chain reaction that ultimately would cost several chiefs and at least one council member their jobs.

Shortly after Chief Ruelas was put on leave to allow the city to investigate the claims, the interim chief gave orders that Sgt. Castellon be put on leave as well. But when Lt. Kevin Glasgow, who had been charged with delivering the news, told the sergeant he was relieved of duty, Castellon immediately picked up his phone and called the city administrator.

Glasgow would later write a memo of his recollection of the events. (It was composed at the request of the acting chief, who retired from the force shortly after the incident.)

The lieutenant wrote that, within minutes, Mario Hernandez and Brenda Esqueda were banging on the station's doors. Esqueda had one word for him: "Mistake."

Mayor Mario Hernandez added a few more words, declaring of Castellon in no uncertain terms, "He is to return to duty and it will be business as usual."

An L.A. Times reporter eventually obtained Glasgow's memo. The paper's December 2011 story reported that the matter had never been investigated by the L.A. Sheriff's Department, even though eight months had passed.

The City of San Fernando twice denied my request to view the memo, calling it a confidential personnel matter and subject to attorney-client privilege.Before approaching the city, though, I'd requested the memo from its author. Glasgow was reluctant to give it out; he said there had been fallout for his involvement in the incident.

"I'm not really in the mood to experience any more retaliation," Glasgow said, "but let me ask around and see what the ramifications would be if I release it."

 

I didn't get the chance to speak with him again. Lt. Glasgow was placed on administrative leave that afternoon.

Sitting in a Denny's in downtown San Fernando the next day, Irwin Rosenberg, president of the city's Police Officers Association, tells me, "Everyone is afraid of retaliation." As if on cue, minutes later Rosenberg takes a call from a former colleague, who asks if he has been put on leave yet. (Castellon, Mayor Esqueda's rumored paramour, was placed on leave as this article was going to press. He says he was given no explanation for the move.)

Officers have reason to be afraid — the higher-ups even more than the rank and file. The five police chiefs who've come and gone from that position in the last 18 months have often found themselves entangled in the soap opera at City Hall.

Al Hernandez just chuckles and shakes his head as I run down the list of chiefs who have headed the department and the reasons they left. "I don't mean to laugh, but it just seems like that chair is the kiss of death," Hernandez says.

As city administrator, Hernandez (no relation to Mario Hernandez) is responsible for nominating the chief, whose appointment then must be approved by the City Council. (The council does not have authority over personnel decisions within the police department, such as whether to place Castellon on leave, for instance.)

Earlier this year, Al Hernandez began searching outside the department for someone who could come in to "right the ship."

Gil Carrillo, he decided, was just the man for the job. He came with unimpeachable credentials: a 38-year veteran of the L.A. Sheriff's Department, he was the hero detective who tracked and nabbed the notorious Night Stalker serial killer who terrorized Southern California in the mid-'80s.

"I wanted him to come in to bring stability, and institute whatever corrections were necessary," Hernandez says of Carrillo.

For four months, Hernandez says, Carrillo did just that.

Under Carrillo's tenure, things started to settle down in San Fernando — and then Mario Hernandez decided he wanted to go on a spiritual retreat.

According to a complaint that he would later file in L.A. Superior Court, Mario Hernandez claims that, after his fight with De La Torre, he was manipulated into filing a police report by officers who convinced him De La Torre "had to be taught a lesson."

But the next day, Hernandez had a change of heart. He personally asked Chief Carrillo to withdraw the report.

Carrillo told him nothing could be done: An account of the incident had been processed, and the department was legally mandated to report domestic violence.

Four days later — after the police report was filed but before any restraining order had been issued or the incident had become public knowledge — the council met in a closed-door session. There, Mayor Esqueda placed an item on the agenda: the termination of Carrillo's contract with the city.

Esqueda argued to the council members, she would later tell me, that there were a variety of reasons to let Carrillo go: lack of managerial skill, the budget — and, oh, then there was the remark he'd made at lunch weeks before. When asked what he thought of the council, Carrillo allegedly replied, "Well, I think all five of you are like a Mexican family on welfare." (Carrillo could not be reached for comment.)

Esqueda says she told the rest of the council that she, for one, wouldn't stand for that kind of disrespect to the council, Mexicans or people on welfare. (The other members of the council declined to discuss the conversation, calling it a confidential personnel matter.)

De La Torre abstained, and Hernandez was absent. But the two other members were still upset that the council majority had installed Carrillo without their consent. They jumped at the opportunity to release Carrillo from his contract. Their two votes, plus Esqueda's, were enough to fire the chief.

It was not until the next afternoon, says Councilwoman Ballin, that details began to emerge about the altercation between council members De La Torre and Hernandez — and its aftermath.

A few days later, when the gossip could no longer be ignored, Ballin called her fellow "yes" vote, Councilman Antonio Lopez, and told him they needed to meet for a drink.

"Antonio, I'm going to have to ask you to get a little closer, because I don't want to say this too loud," Ballin remembers telling him, before sharing what she had heard: the fight, the police report and Carrillo's refusal to sweep it all under the rug.

By the end of the week, the news was everywhere. Mario Hernandez resigned from the City Council the following Tuesday.

 

"Unfortunately, our city became entangled in my personal life back in November, and once again faces the same challenge today," he said in a characteristically unrepentant statement distributed by the City Clerk.

When Gil Carrillo first appeared on the scene, the Sun was skeptical of the new chief, to say the least. "Police Chief Gil Carrillo, hired through the back door by the three, had some difficulty staying awake during last Monday's council meeting, [sic] will supply the brute strength to enforce the will of The Three," the paper wrote early in his tenure in a recurring feature titled "As the City Turns."

But when he was fired, Carrillo suddenly became a hero. The following week, a flattering photo of the cop, wronged by the trio of conniving council members, graced the cover of the Sun, under the headline "Connecting the Dots: Why Police Chief Gil Carrillo Was Released From His Contract."

The paper's allegiances may shift, voter opinion may change, but nearly a year after Mario Hernandez's confession made international headlines, the problems in San Fernando drag on. And all anyone can say is what a shame it is.

Hernandez resigned in disgrace. De La Torre is scheduled to stand trial on charges of battery and vandalism on Nov. 3, just days before she and Esqueda face a recall election on Nov. 6. Her lawyer insists in court documents that De La Torre "has incurred the wrath of the San Fernando Police Officers Association" over her efforts to reform the department. The charges against her, he maintains, are retaliation.

After months of rallies, petitions and appeals to corporate management, San Fernando lost a very public campaign to keep JCPenney. Its historic building, owned by Aszkenazy, was vacated at the end of the August.

The loss in taxes can be added to the list of San Fernando's financial woes: At a budget presentation in August, the city administrator reported that the city is facing a $1 million shortfall. If the council does not take action soon, he warned, San Fernando could go into bankruptcy.

And still the public shaming continues.

"We're tired of this!" citizen Renato Lira, a regular speaker, railed at that same meeting. "You work for the City of San Fernando, we pay you to be there — not to be boycotting these meetings!"

Before he was finished with his speech, Lira presented De La Torre with the "Telenovela of the Year" award. The trophy was a framed copy of an editorial cartoon that appeared in the Sun. One panel depicted De La Torre and Hernandez at each other's throats; the other, wearing straitjackets in a padded room, blowing kisses at each other.

Mario Hernandez, now retired, was sitting in the front row in flip-flops and jeans. He had one question for Lira: "Hey butthead — where's mine?"

ILLUSTRATION BY FRED HARPER

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