Once scandal-plagued, L.A. County now unusually quiet

A CalWatchdog survey last August of all the different corruption scandals in recent years at local agencies in south and central Los Angeles County suggested that the area amounted to the New Jersey of Golden State politics.

The survey, which was cited by Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters, established that the wrongdoing went far beyond the nationally publicized scandals in the small town of Bell, in which a small cadre of administrators and elected officials covertly siphoned millions of dollars away from public use for their own enrichment.

Among the many improprieties: the resignation of the mayor of South El Monte after he admitted taking bribes; officials at the Central Basin Municipal Water District being caught using a $2.75 million slush fund of ratepayer dollars for political machinations; the resignation of two City of Commerce council members for misleading official investigations into their conduct; as well as scandals that led elected officials to quit or go to jail in Cudahy, Lynwood, Maywood, Montebello, South Gate and Vernon.

But something strange has happened since South El Monte Mayor Luis Aguinaga resigned eight months ago after being caught taking bribes from a city contractor for seven years: After a decade-plus of one scandal after another, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office reports a lull in corruption scandals countywide.

According to public records obtained by the Los Angeles Times, just 11 felony public corruption cases were filed last year, down from 39 in 2010.

Explanations vary for lull in prosecutions

In a statement to the Times, Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey suggested that all the prosecutions and forced resignations in recent years might have discouraged corruption. Former state lawmakers Ron Calderon and Tom Calderon — brothers who built a political fiefdom over decades — pleaded guilty to public corruption charges last year after what an investigation showed was years of influence peddling that began at their power base in Montebello and the Central Basin water agency. Also cited as possibly affecting criminal filings: the departure of some senior deputy district attorneys with the most experience in public corruption cases.

Academics have also argued for decades that corruption comes in cycles: scandals lead to crackdowns and tough regulation, which leads to assumptions about problems being addressed and scrutiny slackening, thus leading to new scandals.

But officials at the scandal-scarred Central Basin water agency have a specific reason to stay on the straight and narrow: a new state law adds layers of accountability and transparency specifically designed for the water supplier, which delivers supplies to nearly 2 million Los Angeles County residents.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, won the signature of Gov. Jerry Brown last September for AB 1794. The measure increases the number of people on the water agency’s board of directors, specifies the ways that the positions can be filled, adopts stricter language on contribution disclosures and says individuals already serving in a elected capacity are ineligible to be Central Basin board members.

Garcia’s measure easily passed the Legislature. Among those joining in the Assembly’s 80-0 vote for AB 1794: Assemblyman Ian Calderon, D-Whittier, son of Charles Calderon and nephew of Ron Calderon.

Ian Calderon, now 31, was first elected to the Assembly in 2012, before prosecutors closed in on his older relatives. He’s not suffering for the sins of his family. After a 2014 primary and general election scares in which he was nearly unseated by Republican Rita Topalian, he was re-elected easily over Topalian in 2016 and serves as Assembly majority floor leader.

Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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