- 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.)

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.”

Ms. Guerrero could not be reached for comment. Mr. Leal did not return calls for this article.

One of Mr. Narramore’s earliest initiatives in 1995 was to clamp down on officer misconduct and, he said, to focus on the hiring of Hispanics from the local community. In his first year, he said, 70 people either left the department or were fired or went to jail.

Under the new leadership, Mr. Narramore said, the City Council wanted more of a say over police personnel matters and pushed him to tap police resources to help plug holes in the city budget — efforts he said he resisted. He said he also had to deal more frequently with Mr. Leal for approval of asset forfeitures.

At one point, he said, one of his top narcotics detectives was investigating a nightclub owner and the owners of a chain of taco stands for suspected involvement with illicit sources of income. Both were substantial donors to Mr. Noguez’s campaign.

“They knew I was a straight shooter and they just wanted me and my assistant chief out,” Mr. Narramore said. “It was clear they wanted control of the police department.”

Mr. Narramore’s firing led to a succession of chiefs. More important, he said, it marked the rise in power of two officers who had histories of complaints and disciplinary actions: One he fired for giving false information to internal affairs investigators, only to see the City Council reinstate the officer. Mr. Narramore said he was prepared to fire the officer a second time for interfering in a police matter and misrepresenting himself as an officer of a neighboring jurisdiction, when he himself was fired.

Mr. Narramore said he demoted a second officer, who was influential in the police union, for having inappropriate physical contact with a police dispatcher. After Mr. Narramore was fired, he said, the officer was reinstated and later promoted.

A civil rights lawsuit making its way through federal court in Los Angeles paints a similarly sordid picture of Huntington Park police since Mr. Noguez and his allies took over.

Former Officer Paul Tapia, a 17-year veteran and former U.S. Navy postal inspector, said in court papers that he became the target of retaliation and later was fired after witnessing and then reporting that a fellow officer had physically threatened a police sergeant in 2007.

Court records show that the accused officer was placed on administrative leave but soon was returned to duty on the same shift as Officer Tapia. Within a few weeks, Officer Tapia — whose performance evaluation at the time gave him an overall rating of “competent-plus” — was told by another officer, a friend of the accused officer, that he had better watch his step.

Officer Tapia said his firing left him short on his mortgage payments, forcing him to sell many of his possessions to make due. He now works for the Desert Hot Springs (Calif.) Police Department, but had to take a $30,000-per-year pay cut.

He said the officer whom he accused and two senior officers — one of whom was the same officer that Mr. Narramore demoted — went to the police chief at the time and asked that Officer Tapia be fired. When the chief refused, he said, the three complained to Ms. Guerrero and the firing took place.

Others have filed lawsuits claiming Huntington Park goes out of its way to protect certain officers accused of misconduct. Former acting Chief of Police Cosme Lozano said in a lawsuit, since dismissed, that his decision to discipline a sergeant found by an outside investigator to have forged loan documents was overridden by the chief who succeeded him.

Mr. Lozano’s lawsuit said his successor told him to isolate negative reviews on an officer’s performance evaluation so they could be removed, and to manipulate the hiring process to allow the employment of an officer who had been accused of a serious crime.

One of the senior officers responsible for Officer Tapia’s firing, the Lozano lawsuit said, also was impounding semi-trucks within Huntington Park and avoiding dispatch procedures to use a tow truck company other than the city’s primary contractor. When Mr. Lozano reported the matter and requested a formal investigation, the lawsuit said, the new chief delayed a decision for six weeks and then closed the matter.

Officer Tapia said he and other officers spoke with an FBI agent two years ago who expressed interest in the tow truck matter, but never heard from the agent again.

Mr. Narramore said he was not surprised and described the FBI as “pretty passive.” He said he also was disappointed in Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, the leading candidate to be California’s next attorney general, for failing to investigate the department.

“I feel like Cooley’s known about a lot of things and always has an excuse for not doing anything,” he said. “I’ve told both his office and the FBI that they could do undercover ops and expose some people, just like a drug case. Offer these guys something and they’re gonna take it.”

FBI officials in Los Angeles declined to comment, and Mr. Cooley’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Huntington Park’s police problems have come at a cost to the city. In 2005, when the city couldn’t afford to fully fund police pensions, the council, led by Mr. Noguez and Ms. Guerrero, approved a $23 million bond that employees say the city cannot afford to repay.

City employees also are up in arms about layoffs of key administrative personnel and reductions in the public works department. But in 2009, matters got worse, they say, when the city put Measure E to the voters to raise property taxes. Just over 1,000 people voted, and the measure passed by 30 votes.

Now, according to city employees who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, the increased property tax revenue is being funneled into police salaries and the police pension fund. Mr. Narramore said the citizens of Huntington Park get shortchanged on services while being taxed higher.

“Police chiefs in Huntington Park become political hacks for the council,” Mr. Narramore said. “And it certainly seems to me that the union picks the police chief. So if the chief bucks the union, he’s gone.”

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