Represent! | Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Why is public corruption endemic in southeast Los Angeles County?

State Sen. Ron Calderon wasn't the first politician from southeast Los Angeles County to get in trouble with law enforcement authorities.
State Sen. Ron Calderon wasn't the first politician from southeast Los Angeles County to get in trouble with law enforcement authorities.
Rich Pedroncelli/AP

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On June 3, voters in Southeast L.A. County will elect a state senator to succeed Ron Calderon, who is facing federal public corruption charges. His was only the latest of a string of such cases that have plagued this area in recent years.

But why that's the case is something of a mystery. 

In the past decade, officials from South Gate, Bell, Cudahy, Maywood, Vernon, Huntington Park and Lynwood have been investigated for — and in most cases convicted of — corruption.


What is it about these cities in this region that has led to so much malfeasance?  Would there be fewer if there were more watchdogs? 

"What we often forget when we look at civic engagement in California is the system is intentionally set up to minimize voter participation," says Cal State Northridge professor Tom Hogen-Esch.

Cities here have off-cycle elections. That means voters go to the polls when there's not a presidential or gubernatorial race on the ballot that would typically boost turnout. There are also the local demographics. According to the U.S. Census, more than 40 percent of South Gate's mostly Latino residents were born outside the United States. Unless they become citizens, they are ineligible t vote.

"These institutions that exist today were really set up to prevent and dissuade immigrants from participating in local government," Hogen-Esch says.

Changing demographics have had another effect. As the region went from mostly white to predominately Latino, candidates from the Latino community were initially unable to unseat incumbent politicians, according to Fernando Guerra, head of the  Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. 

"They could not take out that existing white political power structure," Guerra says. "So then came a second or third generation of very young and aggressive [Latinos] who ran."

According to Guerra, some of those candidates ran for office to enrich themselves – and not to advance the community.

"These were the Albert Robleses of the world and a bunch of others who just said, 'No, we've had enough.' They were young, they were ambitious and they made politics their main vocation," Guerra says. 

Robles is a former mayor of South Gate. In 2006, he was sentenced to 10 years in federal prison for defrauding the working class town of $35 million.  One of the men who worked with the FBI in the Robles case was Mayor Henry Gonzalez. He's still in office.

"Most politicians run with good intentions," says Gonzalez, "and all of a sudden, greed sets in — and people can't handle power." 

Times may be changing in this region. In addition to Calderon's arrest, two former Bell administrators were sentenced to prison and ordered to pay millions of dollars in restitution. And a state audit recently found the new leaders of Cudahy are taking steps to right the financial mismanagement of the past.

History of Corruption:

L.A. County Assessor John Noguez: The county assessor is a former Huntington Park mayor and city councilman. He was arrested in October of 2012 for allegedly engaging in a pay-to-play scheme. Noguez has pleaded not guilty; his trial is pending.

Bell: Scandal erupted in 2010 when the Los Angeles Times reported on hugely inflated salaries, illegal taxes and the lending of city money in the tiny city of Bell. Former City Manager Robert Rizzo pleaded no contest to 69 corruption charges. His former deputy Angela Spaccia was found guilty of 11 felonies for her role in the scandal. 

Cudahy: Three former city officials – Osvaldo Conde, David Silva and Angel Perales – pleaded guilty in a federal extortion and bribery case. They admitted to accepting $17,000 in bribes from a FBI informant who purportedly wanted to open a medical marijuana clinic in town. 

Vernon: The city’s mayor, Leonis Malburg, and his wife Dominica were charged with voter fraud and conspiracy in 2006. They were found guilty in 2009; Leonis was given five years probation and ordered to pay $579,000 in fines and restitution, while his wife was placed on three years probation and ordered to pay nearly $40,000.

South Gate: Over the years, Albert Robles served as a South Gate councilman, mayor, treasurer and deputy city manager. He went on to be a member of the Central Basin Municipal Water District. In 2006, he was convicted of corruption and sentenced to 10 years in federal prison. In 2013, a federal appeals court threw out Robles’ convictions on public corruption and money laundering. The bribery counts remained.

Lynwood: Two former city councilmen were convicted of misappropriating funds. Prosecutors say they received stipends for sitting on city commissions that didn’t do any work. Louis Byrd was sentenced to five years in state prison while Fernando Pedroza was given four. Politicians also used city-issued credit cards for concerts, golf tickets and sexual favors at a Mexican strip club.

Maywood Water Company No. 2: The former head of Maywood Water Co. 2 was fined by the Fair Political Practices Commission in 2014 for campaign money laundering.  

Central Basin Municipal Water District: In 2013, the FBI subpoenaed documents from the  Commerce-based water district, allegedly in connection with the Ron Calderon investigation.