LOS ANGELES (MCT) — Officials in the small town of Cudahy took part in brazen and widespread corruption, including accepting cash bribes hidden in a shoe box, abusing drugs at City Hall and throwing out absentee ballots that favored election challengers, according to court documents filed by federal prosecutors.
The allegations paint an alarming picture of a city government permeated by graft far more extensive than was laid out when three city officials were arrested last month for allegedly accepting $17,000 in bribes from a medical marijuana dispensary owner.
The revelations are contained in a plea agreement for Mayor David Silva and former code enforcement head Angel Perales. They agreed to plead guilty Thursday to bribery and extortion charges in connection with the pot dispensary. The third official is councilman Osvaldo Conde.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph Akrotirianakis said the investigation is continuing but would not provide details. A federal grand jury has been meeting on the case.
“There’s a number of different types of corruption here, from election fraud to pay to play to tipping off of police investigations,” Akrotirianakis said. “The very definition of democracy is that all those qualified as voters have the opportunity to cast their votes and to have those votes counted.”
Cudahy is a working-class city of 23,000 off the 710 Freeway near several other cities that have been hit by corruption scandals, including Bell, Vernon and South Gate.
The alleged election fraud involved highly charged City Council races in 2007 and 2009, in which the city power structure was challenged for the first time in nearly a decade.
Documents show that a former Cudahy official, identified only as “G.P.,” asked Perales and others to enlist nonresidents to register to vote in city. Akrotirianakis would not say whether G.P. was George Perez, the longtime Cudahy city manager who was dismissed last year without explanation. Perez’s attorney, Stanley L. Friedman, said the FBI had interviewed his client, but he denied that Perez was involved in any fraud.
According to the court records, Perales persuaded family members to register in Cudahy at the home of “M.B.,” a city employee. City employees who registered non-residents to vote were rewarded by G.P. with “promotions and other favorable treatment.”
The Los Angeles Times reported last week that four of Perales’ relatives registered to vote at a house in Cudahy even though they live 12 miles away in El Sereno. The house is owned by Manuel Buenrostro, who worked in Cudahy’s Parks and Recreation Department.
City officials also tampered with absentee ballots, federal authorities said.
Perales told investigators that when absentee ballots were delivered to City Hall, he and G.P. determined through “trial and error” the best way to open and reseal envelopes without defacing them.
“Routinely and systematically,” they opened the ballots to determine whom the voter selected. If the votes were for incumbents, the ballots were resealed and counted. Ballots for non-incumbents were discarded, he claimed.
The election fraud allegedly occurred in 2007 and 2009. Challengers narrowly lost both elections. One of the challengers saw his home firebombed and another had his car vandalized during what they said was a campaign of intimidation.
One of those candidates, Luis Garcia, said Thursday that he felt vindicated by the revelations.
“Oh my goodness, that means we won,” Garcia said. “It’s not surprising..... Every time we knocked on people’s doors there was positive reaction, and the community was ready for change.”
Carlos Juarez, Perales’ attorney, said his client is “very remorseful. He feels he betrayed the people of Cudahy.”
The court documents outline numerous cases in which officials allegedly accepted cash bribes in exchange for favors, votes, permit approvals and other forms of help.
One developer allegedly started bribing city officials in 2006, giving them cash hidden in a shoe box. In late 2011 or early 2012, Perales, Conde and Silva allegedly met with the developer at the Dal Rae restaurant in Pico Rivera. In the men’s restroom, the developer allegedly handed Perales $3,000 to give to Conde and Silva. The developer, federal authorities said, was seeking to build a residential project in Cudahy.
On about eight occasions over several years, another business owner allegedly paid bribes at a Denny’s restaurant in Hollywood after Perales chauffeured “G.P.” there.
After Perales became Cudahy’s acting city manager, he questioned the invoice of a contractor who had been hired despite not being the lowest bidder.
Conde allegedly told Perales to approve the invoice, saying the councilman expected to get a $6,000 “kickback” from the contractor. The next day, after Conde personally delivered a check from the city to the contractor, he allegedly handed $2,000 in cash to Perales.
Federal authorities said city officials also partnered in an illegal sex business. Earlier this year, Perales and Conde allegedly became partners in a “massage parlor” in Cudahy, conspiring to bribe Silva and other city officials to get a permit for the business — which would provide “sexual services” to customers.
The federal complaint alleges that a Maywood police officer “tipped” Perales off about an impending police raid of the business, which at least one city official was known to frequent.
Several months ago, a businessman approached Cudahy officials about purchasing some city-owned land to build a sports arena, the documents said. He allegedly offered $800,000 more than what the city had paid for the land.
Silva told prosecutors that rather than selling the property for the higher price, city officials agree to sell it for the same amount they purchased it for and accept $100,000 in bribes, prosecutors said. Silva and Conde allegedly each received $50,000.
One of the more bizarre allegations contained in the complaint is that some city officials abused prescription pain medication — and dispensed it — at City Hall.
According to federal prosecutors, G.P. would instruct Perales and other city employees to bring “narcotic pain medications for use at Cudahy City Hall.” G.P. “would occasionally provide such drugs to Perales and other city employees.”
The latest allegations left many in Cudahy stunned. The remaining city leaders expressed outrage and urged Conde to resign.
“This city and its residents can no longer afford to be held hostage to this individual who blatantly abused the public’s trust and his position of leadership and authority to indulge in self-enrichment at the expense of the safety of our community,” the city manager, Hector Rodriguez, said in a statement.