Assembly Speaker John Pérez is one of the three most powerful people in Sacramento, and the only one from L.A. Even so, he remains a bit of a mystery to Angelenos. We know he's Antonio Villaraigosa's cousin, and he likes rubber ducks, but beyond that it gets murky.
Dia de los Muertos at Hollywood Forever; Credit: Photo by Nanette Gonzales
Along comes Lance Williams, of the Center for Investigative Reporting, to fill in some of the details. Last week, Williams reported that in 2011 and 2012, Pérez dated Tyler Cassity, the owner of the Hollywood Forever cemetery. As Williams also reported, Cassity's family has been embroiled in a scandal over misuse of customer funds.
But some folks are crying foul…
Writing at Frontiers L.A., Karen Ocamb called the report — which also ran in the San Francisco Chronicle — a “hit piece” that trafficked in “guilt by association.”
“Where's the link? Why is this a story — let alone a front-page story on the San Francisco Chronicle?” Ocamb wrote. “Why are there no similar stories on heterosexual elected officials who date someone without first asking them to undergo a criminal background check?”
The allegations against the Cassity family are quite serious. Based in St. Louis, the family has operated funeral services companies for several decades. According to federal prosecutors, the Cassity family would accept payment for pre-arranged funerals, and then divert the funds to other expenses, in what amounted to a “Ponzi-like scheme.” Back in July, Cassity's father and brother pleaded guilty to charges of fraud and money laundering.
Tyler Cassity was not charged with a crime, but he has been sued by a court-appointed receiver, who contends that he pocketed over $1 million from the family business to pay off personal credit cards. Cassity's attorneys dispute that claim.
However, there isn't even a hint that Pérez was involved in any of this. The allegations arise from business activity that occurred outside of California. Pérez's alleged offense is dating a guy who was accused of profiting from a Ponzi scheme.
Pérez is termed out of the Assembly, and announced last week that he is running for state controller. Some of this will likely be recirculated during the campaign — especially Cassity's $1,000 to Pérez — which may be why his supporters are so exercised about it.
In her critique, Ocamb suggested that Williams' investigation displayed “subtextual homophobia.”
Williams noted that Pérez solicited donations from his Sacramento contacts — including lobbyists, lawmakers and Indian tribes — to support Cassity's bike ride on behalf of an AIDS charity. Williams argues those donations show how Pérez mixed his social and professional lives. Ocamb argues that Williams' reporting shows his “cultural incompetence.”
“Anyone who has any inkling about gay men who survived the AIDS crisis knows that gay men funded HIV/AIDS services while the government fiddled away, and many — including John A. Pérez and Tyler Cassity — continue do so,” Ocamb writes.
Probably very few would doubt the sincerity of Pérez's and Cassity's interest in raising money for AIDS research. That does not, however, put them beyond scrutiny.
Moneyed interests in Sacramento make charitable contributions as a way of currying favor with powerful people — both gay and straight. If Anthem Blue Cross and the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians found it worth the expense to donate $10,000 to Pérez's boyfriend's bike trip, that seems like information worth knowing.
Presumably those groups also have a sincere interest in AIDS research, but that's probably not why they made this particular donation.
Asked for a response to Ocamb's article, Williams emailed, “Our story on Speaker Pérez was newsworthy, accurate and fair.”
On a biographical level, it's also just plain interesting to know that Pérez dated Cassity, who would be an interesting figure even without the whiff of scandal. He transformed Hollywood Forever from a moribund and bankrupt cemetery into one of the city's coolest date spots. His creative approach to undertaking also earned him a consulting gig on HBO's “Six Feet Under” and a profile in the New Yorker.
The Weekly also profiled him when he first came to town, back in 1998.