SoCal Connected on KCET
Segment | Investigation

Controversy Brewing in Huntington Park Over Water District, City Attorney

You remember the bombshells last summer. In the southeast L.A. County gateway city of Bell, leaders -- including elected officials -- were accused of looting the treasury and pulling down exorbitant salaries. They were investigated, booted out of office, thrown in jail. Day after day, Bell dominated the headlines. But just a couple of miles away, the working-class community of Huntington Park is living through its own ordeal. But you haven't heard about it -- until now.

Vince Gonzales: These streets are on the edge of southeast Los Angeles County. They are the backbone of a small but scrappy town, dotted with used car lots and small storefronts -- bordered by scandal-plagued cities like Vernon, Bell and Maywood. This is Huntington Park. Once affluent, but now mainly working-class and Latino, the average income here is $37,000. Out of a population of about 58,000 only 25 percent are registered to vote. Less than half have a high school diploma.

Edmundo Perez: In general they are good families. Good families who do the best they can do.

Gonzales: Edmundo Vicente Perez has lived here 23 years. Like most residents, he viewed city politics from afar. But that changed in August when he heard his water bill was going up because the city says they are too broke to subsidize water rates. Upset, he took his gripe to City Hall.

Perez [at city council meeting]: This city has a problem with irresponsible expenditures.

Gonzales: Other residents joined in.

Resident [at city council meeting]: With the way the economy is, you guys should be ashamed of yourselves.

Resident [at city council meeting]: Do we have a heart? I mean, when they can't buy food or milk, this is terrible.

Gonzales: But soon the chorus of jeers turned towards this man, the city attorney, Francisco Leal.

Resident [at city council meeting]: Why do you pay him $600,000? He is not the golden boy!

Gonzales: Francisco Leal has made millions as an attorney for Huntington Park and other southeast L.A. cities. He's moved from town to town for years, often serving as lobbyist and a contract city attorney. And sometimes, controversy followed him. In 2005, he was terminated from his job as lobbyist and city attorney of Commerce. He settled with the city and agreed to pay $70,000. Questions about his firm have been raised in places like Lynwood and Alhambra, but not in Huntington Park. Since 2000, the city has paid Leal’s various firms over $4 million to be a lobbyist, the city attorney, and legal counsel for the city's redevelopment department.

Laura Chick: My question is what are the legal affairs of such a small city that is costing them so much to pay for their attorney?

Gonzales: We asked Laura Chick about all of this. She is both the former L.A. City Controller and was the California Inspector General for stimulus funds.

Chick: This law firm has had this city's business since 2003. Have they put out a competitive bid? Have they done this every couple of years?

Gonzales: According to our review of public records, the answer is “no.”

Chick: I also think that an attorney who is doing work for a city owes that city complete openness and transparency about who all of his and his firms' clients are so they can always check to see: is there a conflict of interest?

Gonzales: Which brings us back to where we started. Remember the residents’ anger over water bills? What Francisco Leal didn't tell the public at that meeting was that he is also the attorney for the local Water Replenishment District, or WRD.

Three neighboring cities -- Cerritos, Downey and Signal Hill -- are suing WRD, claiming their charges are unfair. Huntington Park was one of a handful of cities that sided with WRD in that lawsuit. Remember, Huntington Park's city attorney Francisco Leal is also the attorney for the WRD. And Leal’s lobbying firm was paid by the WRD to do community outreach. Since 2011, his firm has billed WRD over a million dollars from WRD, while at the same time collecting $37,500 a month from Huntington Park, one of the poorest cities in L.A. County.

Chick: And what a bad symbol for the hard-working and not so rich residents of this struggling city. They are faced with a huge water rate increase, and they are watching their city attorney who works for a water district rake in what sounds like almost a million dollars for his law firm. That's a pretty hard blow.

Gonzales: We asked WRD's board chair if Huntington Park was getting good advice given the potential for a conflict of interest.

Albert Robles: I believe that they are because they are not suing us. It's the other cities that are suing us that they are getting the bad advice. It's not the city of Huntington Park, in my opinion, that's getting the bad advice.

Gonzales: At a recent city council meeting where officials were supposed to consider renewing his city attorney contract, we asked Leal:

Karen Foshay/"SoCal" Producer: Don't you feel like there is a conflict of interest?

Leal: No, we're all on the same side. Absolutely not. We're all on the same side. I'm giving great advice to both entities. You'd be proud!

Jessica Levinson: My first impression is that this is actually a mess.

Gonzales: We asked Loyola Law School professor Jessica Levinson about Leal and the WRD and Huntington Park.

Levinson: So we have one person who is simultaneously a consultant, which is an undefined grey term in this situation, a lobbyist that seems to look like a consultant, and an attorney. And it’s just not only the same person wearing all these hats, but wearing them for various parties that are all involved in the same litigations. There are too many relationships going on here.

Gonzales: Relationships that Leal told us he never put in writing to the city council -- no disclosures and no conflict of interest statements.

Foshay: Was there a disclosure statement?

Leal: No, no, no. I'm sorry. We ran this by our conflict counsel. So there was no disclosure statement. We can provide it for the council if that is what the council wants. The council does not have a disclosure statement.

Foshay: Don’t you think they should have...?

Leal: We will give it to them if they desire. We will give it to them.

Levinson: Lawyers put things in writing all the time, this is kind of our bread and butter. Not all of what we do is just a handshake or a wink and a nod, particularly when it comes to ethical duties, when it comes to duties of loyalty, when it comes to confidential information.

Gonzales: California State Bar rules require written disclosure when an attorney represents two parties in a lawsuit. But Leal told us he didn't need to do that. And when we asked him if the city council knew of his double duties, we got two different answers.

Foshay: When did you tell the city council?

Leal: We had a discussion about over a month ago about this issue.

Foshay: And when did you start as city attorney here?

Leal: It seems like a lifetime, to be honest with you.

Foshay: 2003, and then you started in December 2010 at the water district. So that is almost two years now that you've gone without telling them that you have these dual roles.

Leal: They knew, they've always known. We've talked to members. They’ve know that I represent them.

Chick: Based on what I am hearing, this attorney is opening the city up for liability issues by not revealing certain things, by allowing perception to occur by having private conversations instead of on public record.

Gonzales: So who knew what and when? We went to the city council to find out, but they just ran away from our cameras. The day after we asked Leal and the council questions about his contract, he abruptly resigned, saying the city needed a more hands-on and engaged city attorney. And now, for the first time in nine years, the city attorney's contract is going out for bid. And at that same city council meeting where we spoke with Leal, citizens served all five council members with recall papers.

Valentin Amezquita/Resident: There is no other way to remove them, except for a recall. So we are using the model of Bell because there is a lot of abuse, and there is no other way to get them out except to have a recall, to have all the people engaged in a very democratic way. All I want to do is get the bums out, including him.

Gonzales: That may require getting more people to the voting booth, says L.A. historian D.J. Waldie.

DJ Waldie: What we really need is an active electorate and an engaged news media who bring something to these communities they don't currently have. We’ve got to break up the old-boy, old-girl networks and make these cities more successful democracies.

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I don't get water bills from this WRD. I don't understand how they are involved. City website says water comes from City or Metropolitian Water District (MWD). Website for WRD says they didn't raise rates this year, so why are our rates going up. Sounds like it is just the City. Glad Attorney quit, we need to find someone good for the City.