Photo by Slobodon Dimitrov
The question remains why Alatorre — arguably the most corrupt and corrupting Los Angeles politician of his generation — went down for just one easy count of income-tax evasion. And why the feds passed on their own investigators’ allegations of corruption, bribery, loan fraud, extortion and conspiracy. Under his plea bargain, Alatorre can never be prosecuted for them.
For 28 years, Alatorre has been a far more powerful figure than his stature as councilman or legislator would suggest. He ruled the Eastside, he commanded the City Council and local organized labor, he swayed Sacramento: For officialdom, his smile meant success, his scowl, disaster.
Alatorre’s latest disgrace hasn’t changed this. “So ferocious was Achilles that he was as horrendous retreating as advancing,” Homer writes. Thus also with Alatorre, who has screwed so many enemies so badly for so long that, for those he’s controlled, it must be impossible to believe you are safe as long as Alatorre can pick up a phone.
The courts could have ended Alatorre’s reign. They could have handed him a five-year sentence in an out-of-state federal prison and fined him at least as much money as he was known to have stolen or extorted. This would have been justice. An eight-month house arrest that first permits the criminal half a year on the street to tie up loose ends simply tells his former victims — and would-be emulators on the City Council — that Alatorre has been sidelined. But not that he is out of the game. In fact, according to his attorney, Eric Dobberteen, “He can still work,” and even leave his home to do so if his keepers approve.
Alatorre can even appeal the plea arrangement, though he originally agreed to waive his right of appeal. Without a request from either the defense or the prosecution, U.S. District Judge Robert Takasugi decided to waive the waiver in Monday’s sentencing hearing.
Alatorre’s plea bargain was signed in ä early April, just as U.S. Attorney Alejandro Mayorkas was due to step down (his Bush administration successor has not yet been picked). The sentencing date, originally in July, was discreetly extended to October 23, and then changed to August 27 at Dobberteen’s request. After he signed the plea bargain, Alatorre was allowed to visit Las Vegas in May and July, purportedly to see “relatives.” There’s no mention, however, of the councilman’s going to Sacramento to earn his $7,500-a-month DWP lobbyist stipend recently mentioned here, though. Nor that the feds knew of this March deal, put together by then Mayor Dick Riordan, on April 1, when they agreed there would be no cash penalties, due to Alatorre’s alleged indigence. April Fool, Uncle Sam.
At least Alatorre won’t be doing more work for the DWP, since that agency has canceled his contract, according to City Controller Laura Chick. Chick says she’s trying to find out whether the city has to pay Alatorre $15,000 still outstanding on the arrangement. “This is a faulty contract,” Chick said. “The DWP should never have entered into it.”
Maybe, had Alatorre wanted, the sentencing could have been postponed until his age of retirement. Or at least until he could get someone to pay his wife Angie’s catering outfit, Eventfully Yours, to feed him in his eight months’ confinement.
You get the idea, reading newly available documents in the case, that Alatorre is one lucky little sleazebag. The FBI and (of all agencies) the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Inspector General’s Office were baying for his blood. Evidence they gathered suggests that Alatorre might have ended up in prison, had the U.S. Attorney’s Office only placed the same priority on political corruption that it gives minor drug trafficking.
The investigators compiled an overwhelming heap of evidence, some of which has already been reported, much of which has not. According to a search-warrant affidavit filed on February 8, 2000, Angie Alatorre, between 1993 and 1998, collected $146,200 from JNED Inc., the Nederlander firm that was storming hell for a city contract to operate the Greek Theater. In return for which, the affidavit alleges, Angie Alatorre distributed some free tickets. Nice work if you can get it. According to the same papers, Alatorre and his hireling Frank Alderete shook down local property magnate Sam Mevorach for $45,000 between ’95 and ’97, threatening otherwise to sic building inspectors or to botch a pending $15 million city loan to the potential buyer of 1,175 units of Mevorach-owned East L.A. housing. According to the documents, the grift was passed off in envelopes on street corners and in coffee shops. The first donation, made before Christmas of 1995, was a seasonal exception. Mevorach, the documents allege, claims he “gave Richard Alatorre a Christmas gift consisting of $2,000, all in one-dollar bills, wrapped in a box with a bow on it.” It’s the spirit that counts.
By now, everyone knows that Alatorre let the Eastside entity known as the East Los Angeles Community Union, or TELACU, pay $13,200 to tile the roof of his house at no cost to the then MTA chair. This was while Alatorre was stabbing the backs of everyone who stood in the way of a $65 million rail contract for a consortium that included TELACU. But the affidavit claims that Mevorach (who testified under his own grant of immunity) told officials he also gave $15,000 “for improvements” to Casa Alatorre. It is said that first Alatorre gave Mevorach a verbal wish list, then Alderete demanded money, apparently to build a new 7-foot-by-11-foot washroom and remodel two extant bathrooms. He also sought money for the “replacement of the roof and the addition of an electrical circuit for a gate opener.” Which raises the question: Did Alatorre get his roof paid for twice?
Needless to say, none of these donations got reported to the City Ethics Commission. And we know that $41,840 of the money Alatorre allegedly extorted in 1996 (as opposed to that 1995 Christmas present, for instance, or any other gifts or donations received in any other year) did not get reported to the IRS. That, and that alone, is what he is being punished for.
But the investigation leaves many questions unanswered. Such as, where did all the other big money that allegedly whizzed through the Alatorres’ hands over the past decade come from and go to? The affidavit quotes the research of Mimi Strauss, the MTA I.G.’s special agent, who gave the Alatorres’ records the most scrutiny (she first encountered the councilman when she worked for the Ethics Commission). Strauss did a good job, but the family finances still seem as mysterious as quantum physics. How — even with the help of Mevorach and TELACU — did the couple pay for five-figure home renovations out of bank accounts with an average balance of under $2,000? Where went the $377,000 the pair borrowed from lenders and the $96,544 withdrawn from Alatorre’s own pension fund in 1998 and ’99? The affidavit suggests “living expenses” and refinancing the Argus Drive home. But this was a $285,000 house for whose mortgage Alatorre had, only the previous year, been compelled to fake a lease on his previous residence and claim his city car as a “liquid asset.”
Alatorre went after money like a shark after chum — with just as much greed, and just as much foresight. This is not the only passage in the Alatorre fiscal saga where money simply can’t be followed. It’s been reported that, to facilitate the new mortgage, the long-suffering Mevorach first helped Alatorre fake a “lessor” and then reimbursed a “purchaser” for the $41,500 paid for Alatorre’s hard-to-move Monterey Hills condo. But it’s still unclear under what pretenses Alatorre originally obtained a bank loan of well over $82,000 to buy this property, which was apparently worth much less. I am guessing “well over” because the condo (located in a problem-plagued, lawsuit-prone development whose prices have been depressed since the mid-’80s) was allegedly assessed at $40,000 before Alatorre unloaded it (also managing to stick the buyer with an overdue $1,544 payment on his mortgage). Even so, the papers state, Alatorre still owed $40,000 after the sale. They don’t say to whom, or how — or if — he paid it.
All of which suggests that, if anything finally destroys Alatorre, it’ll be his own greed. We’ve recently read how bosom ally Richard Riordan got him that $95,000 DWP contract. Alatorre may desperately need this money if he has taken that much out of his pension fund and still owes on those 2-year-old loans. But it would be interesting to know what exactly he has done to earn the $15,000 the DWP’s paid so far.
Perhaps Alatorre will have to cash whatever equity he retains in the Argus Drive home that corruption bought and graft renovated, with its electric gate and its heated pool and fancy tile roof. And live as humbly as most of his old Eastside constituents.
Only with an electronic bracelet on his ankle.