- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 31, 2010

As corruption charges have spilled out of the Los Angeles-area suburbs of Bell and Vernon, nearby Huntington Park has exhibited similar warning signs of financial mismanagement while largely flying below the radar.

Now, the city’s mayor is seeking to become the next executive in charge of the nation’s largest agency for establishing property tax rates.

But unlike its neighbors, Huntington Park, whose official U.S. Census Bureau population of 64,000 is dwarfed by the closer to 100,000 who live within the city limits, has an additional rap: It is in the throes of an era of police corruption that, according to court records and former city officials, has been enabled by elected officials who have fired officers with exemplary records while protecting others with histories of discipline.

Huntington Park is among a cluster of working-class, immigrant cities southeast of Los Angeles that drew national attention when current and former city officials in neighboring Bell were exposed for paying themselves exorbitant salaries and criminally charged with misappropriating more than $5.5 million. Officials in nearby Vernon also were indicted on charges of conflicts of interest and misuse of public funds.

Incorporated in 1906, Huntington Park bears a striking resemblance to Bell and Vernon: Its annual median household income is less than $39,000, but its property tax rate ranks sixth highest in Los Angeles County; council members have awarded themselves lavish fees on top of their usual salaries for sitting on an obscure community development commission; salaries and pensions are breaking the back of the city’s finances; and some city officials appear to be grossly overpaid. (Last year, Huntington Park paid its unelected city attorney close to $700,000.)

Huntington Park Mayor John R. Noguez (Courtesy of johnnoguez.com)
Huntington Park Mayor John R. Noguez (Courtesy of johnnoguez.com) more >

However, another form of municipal corruption with public safety implications also may have taken root, and the recent history of the Huntington Park Police Department is further complicated by the high salaries and pensions of officers that are straining the city’s coffers.

According to the state controller’s website, the top 68 highest-paid Huntington Park city employees work for the police department.

Former city employees say Huntington Park Mayor John R. Noguez, a candidate for Los Angeles County assessor on Tuesday, has played a key role in allowing this to happen. Mr. Noguez also is the leader of a cabal of elected officials who may have interfered in the hiring, firing and retention of police for political reasons, said former Police Chief Randy Narramore, who was fired in 2004.

In a recent interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Narramore said Mr. Noguez and his allies may have targeted him in part because his detectives were investigating some of the mayor’s most influential political donors.

Mr. Noguez, whose challenger in Tuesday’s election was endorsed by the Los Angeles Times for being less “political,” did not return a call to his campaign headquarters for comment.

Mr. Narramore, most recently the interim city manager in nearby Montebello, took over as Huntington Park’s chief in 1995, at a time it was struggling with abuse cases, rogue officers and poor facilities. A 25-year law enforcement veteran, he said he relished the challenge of turning around a department in a city plagued by drug cartels, the Mexican Mafia and powerful street gangs.

According to his 2004 performance review, the five-member Huntington Park City Council was so pleased with Mr. Narramore’s performance by 2001 that it approved a “substantive increase” in salary and benefits and granted him a contract extension through 2008. The council also expanded his responsibilities to include human resources and parks and recreation supervision.

His review credited him with helping to build a “modern state-of-the-art police facility” at no cost to taxpayers and noted that Mr. Narramore brought in more than $5 million in federal sharing funds from 1995 to 2004 and, during one five-year period, he developed an air support unit consisting of two helicopters also at no cost to the city, a rare asset for a small city police force.

Mr. Noguez and his top ally, Councilwoman Elba Guerrero, took office in 2004 and soon hired a city attorney with a track record of advising small cities embroiled in conflict and corruption. Soon, City Attorney Francisco Leal also became one of Mr. Noguez’s top campaign contributors.

“You know immediately when something’s not right, you can just feel it,” Mr. Narramore said of the election of Mr. Noguez and Ms. Guerrero, and the subsequent hiring of Mr. Leal. “We didn’t get along.”

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